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:
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.
- 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.
- The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.
- 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.