Living Monsters & Curiosities

Just like their European cousins, American colonists enjoyed cabinets of curiosities, public shows, and really anything that might entertain, educate, or, to be honest, offend my 21st century sensibilities.1 It wasn’t just about seeing the exhibits; it was about being the first and then having the pleasure of talking about them after. 

The elite of New York might assemble in their stately homes to discuss paintings and vases, but they also might join the lesser classes in taverns and private homes to view traveling exhibits the world had never seen before.

The Greatest (Colonial) Showman

There is no good way for me to introduce Mr. John Bonnin, 18th century advertiser and showman of curiosities, except by his own words:

“There’s no Body can set up the least Face for Politeness and Conversation, without having been to Mr. Bonnin.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

What were colonists coming to view in his home near the New Dutch Church, a couple of streets north of city hall? Why, porcupines of various colors and crab fishes.

To Be Seen: A curious live Porcupine armed with Darts which resemble Writing Pens, tho of different colors, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attacked tho otherwise of great good humor and Gentleness.
John Bonnin’s advertisement for a colorful porcupine.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Two years prior to the rainbow porcupine, he exhibited the “greatest curiosity in nature.” Mr. Bonnin’s own advertisement claimed it was beyond “our power to fully describe.” The crab fish must have looked fairly special, for I cannot find an image to go along with it. Apparently it was a petrified fish sandwiched between crab shells.

Competitive Curiosities

Electrical Fish: Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily.
John Rowdon’s advertisement for an electrical fish.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Mr. Bonnin, of course, had competition.

Mr. John Rawdon, hairdresser of Broad Street, which curved from the East River near the bottom of Manhattan up to City Hall, exhibited a “wonderful electrical fish.”

Roger Magrah showed off his four foot long “living” alligator to anyone willing to pay the admittance fee.

And, lastly, Captain Seymour of the ship, Fame, thought he could do better than the others by bringing home two lionesses and two ostriches from the African coast. However, the ostriches did not survive the passage. I dread to think what else was among his cargo.

Waxworks

Waxworks, as well as Punch and Judy puppet shows, were very popular not just for entertainment but for colonists to familiarize themselves with the Royal Family of various European countries. As traveling exhibits, they were shown for a limited time, typically in taverns, from seven in the morning until six at night.

18th century waxworks: Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikimedia

There is one unfortunate event that occurred involving an extensive waxwork collection that came to an abrupt and embroiled end.

Mrs. Wright was an “ingenious” artist and mother who worked from home. Her sculptures were said to be very lifelike, which I can only imagine took a lot of time to produce. I don’t know what kind of mother she was, nor what kind of help she had in raising them, or even how old they were. And, without these details, I am making a wild assumption based on the available facts.

All that is to say, while she was “abroad” with her children left at home, one of them set fire to a curtain surrounding one of her sculptures. Neighbors and fire-engines saved the house and most of their valuables, however the entirety of her waxworks succumbed to the flames.

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr2 in the title roles of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Source: Paramount, Public Domain

Two months later, she exhibited two new sculpture sets, one being the murder of Cain by Abel, the other, the Treachery of Delilah to Sampson.

Go ahead, I won’t judge. I think Mrs. Wright was deep in her feels and had some things to work out.

Next Week

Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.

18th Century Peep Show: Victoria and Albert Museum Online

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to know the range of what entertained colonists, however offensive material will never appear in my fiction, therefore my blog won’t be the place to read about them either. This also isn’t the right space to examine the social, political, or just plain ignorant things 18th century folks found entertaining. I recommend the Singleton book in my sources to begin your research.
  2. The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.

Sources:

  • Bushman, R. L. (2011). The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
  • Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.
Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


Join Hallie’s newsletter and read
Rescuing Her Rebel for free

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.