Matthew Wittmann Wed, 12 Apr 2017 23:22:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A New Era of Circus? Mon, 16 Jan 2017 01:22:53 +0000 Continue reading "A New Era of Circus?"]]>

Feld Entertainment made a surprising, but not necessarily unexpected announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which presently tours as two separate shows) will hold its final performance(s) in May. The present show traces its roots to 1871, which was the first season that P. T. Barnum fielded a circus, so some combination of its present title has been touring for over 146 years!

There are, I suppose, two ways to react to the news. The first is to bemoan the passing of the great American railroad circus, even though many traditionalists will tell you that the era already ended in 1956 when RBB&B abandoned the “big top” for indoor arenas. The other is to recognize that the model of touring a large and costly circus around the country is simply not viable in this day and age, and that it’s impressive that this all lasted as long as it did.

I would also add that when one era ends, another begins. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus historically has been its capacity for reinvention. And while this announcement coupled with the closing of the Big Apple Circus last year is a tough blow for circus fans, it’s not as if the circus arts are going to disappear. As I have argued in Circus and the City and elsewhere, it only looks like the circus is in decline if you have a very narrow and traditional idea about what the circus is. Cirque du Soleil is a veritable global entertainment empire. Les 7 Doights and other innovative companies put together and tour incredible shows. Organizations like the American Youth Circus and, in my neighborhood, the Boston Circus Guild show that circus retains its vitality and appeal. At the core of the circus is the delight people take in seeing the spectacular feats by performers, and the fact that one of our biggest entertainment companies does not find it viable to tour a large arena show does not mean that the circus is going to go away. I am hopeful that a reinvented American circus will find the audience that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer could.



Coining Liberty: The Origins of the US Dollar Wed, 10 Feb 2016 04:36:20 +0000 Continue reading "Coining Liberty: The Origins of the US Dollar"]]> 1794dollar

A 1794 US silver dollar that sold for over ten million dollars in 2013 is going a European tour this spring, where it will be displayed alongside an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. More information about the exhibition can be found here and the itinerary is as follows.

Prague: February 9-11
Warsaw: February 16-18 
Tallinn: February 22-23
Helsinki: February 25-26
Stockholm: Feb 29-March 1
Oslo: March 3-6
Dublin: March 12-13
London: March 18-20


The tour was organized by the Samlerhuset Group, which also published a fine volume on “the rise of the dollar” that I contributed an essay and the introduction for.

rise of the dollar
Today of course the United States dollar is recognized and valued around the world, but this contemporary power has obscured its humble origins. The first silver dollars struck at the newfound mint in Philadelphia in late 1794 were modeled on Spanish silver coins that were the dominant form of currency in circulation at the time. The equipment was so inadequate and the government reserves of silver were so small, that only seventeen hundred or so coins were produced, many of them weakly struck. Still, the coin was significant in the sense that it affirmed American independence. Thomas Jefferson famously intoned that “Coinage is peculiarly an Attribute of Sovereignty. To transfer its exercise to another country, is to submit it to another sovereign.” The iconography of the coin, and indeed its very existence, was a material reflection of the revolutionary spirit upon which the United States was founded. Check out the catalogue for the full story of the origin of this seminal coin.
Super Bowl! Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:17:57 +0000 1432189

Harvard Theatre Collection Sun, 31 Jan 2016 21:38:54 +0000 Continue reading "Harvard Theatre Collection"]]> Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 11.38.47 AMI am excited to have been named the new curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection. Although sorry to be leaving the American Numismatic Society, which has been a wonderful and interesting place to work, I am thrilled to be plunging back into the world of popular entertainment. I hope to resume more regular blogging here, and please check back for announcements about new digital initiatives and projects concerning the Harvard Theatre Collection.

Joseph Cowell’s Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821 Sun, 25 Oct 2015 00:57:06 +0000 Continue reading "Joseph Cowell’s Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821"]]> [cross-post from Pocket Change]

Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players (1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.

ANS, 1887.24.1
ANS, 1887.24.1

In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.

1817 admission check for Park Theatre ANS, 1898.4.51



The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.

Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831 New York Public Library
Park Row and the Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831
New York Public Library
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.

ANS, 1896.4.1
1816 silver shilling, ANS, 1896.4.1

Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:

After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.

“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.

“English shillings,” I replied.

“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”

I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.

Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:

I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.

There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:

ANS, 0000.999.10106
ANS, 0000.999.10106

At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.

As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.

After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”

Evenign Post
Evening Post, October 30, 1821

Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.

Markets and Menageries, 1835 Thu, 10 Sep 2015 16:54:09 +0000 Continue reading "Markets and Menageries, 1835"]]> Common-Place, the wonderful digital journal published by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut, launched a new redesign this summer. The journal invariably makes for good reading, and it reminded that some time back before I had even started this website, I wrote a short essay about one of the most spectacular pieces of show printing in the Society’s collection. The Zoological Institute was the mightiest entertainment conglomerate of its day and the image below hardly does their broadside justice so please check out the archived article for some great detail images.

American Antiquarian Society
American Antiquarian Society