Audiences, Evolution, and Class

Looking back from today, it is hard to overestimate the impact that evolutionary theory had on every discipline.  In his wonderful American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry, Daniel Bender says that evolution was a “public science in America,” one that permeated discussions of science, health, immigration, fiscal policy, race, as well as art, labor, fashion, fitness — you name it, writers and commentators invoked the language of advancement, progress, and natural selection.  To me, what makes looking at evolution in the period fun is its ubiquity: it pops up in almost every discussion of the time.

A classic example is “Lost in Wonder” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated from April 1st, 1876 about spectators at the Centennial Exhibition

Lost in Wonder

Here, the gentleman on the left gestures authoritatively to the exhibit, while the other figures, neck craned, mouths open, and hands in their pockets, ignorantly gape at the display.  Whatever is on view, it must be interesting, as a sign, restraining bar, and Centennial guard are keeping people at a distance. The informed, discoursing spectator demonstrates his power not only over the knowledge on display, but over the poor spectators, who can only respond with wonder.

(Joy Kasson also discusses this image in Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture: 38-9. Kasson also observes that they are coded as poor. She notes one man who seems to be carrying everything he owns in a valise).

A more offbeat, but consistent example is in the work of artist and popular ethnographer George Catlin, best known right now as having painted a piece that Johnny Depp used as his inspiration for Tonto in the summer failbuster The Lone Ranger.  Catlin’s treatise Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life diagnosed civilization’s ills to segments of the population who had acquired the unnatural habit of mouth breathing.  In particular, Catlin, like many of this time, equate bad habits with class, and here he is out to reform working class children.  At one point, he uses a working class audience watching a Punch and Judy show, mouths agape with glee, as a key example.
Shut Your Mouth

Tracing everything to mouth breathing may seem quixotic at best, but the book was enormously popular, and Catlin was well respected. By 1875, it had already gone into six editions and would be reprinted regularly into the 1890s.

For more sources, see my work-in-progress Omeka site: Visualizing Evolution

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Barnum’s Museum…Today

IMG1156Yesterday I ventured into the J & R Music and Computer Store at Ann St. and Park Row, the site of Barnum’s Museum a mere 150 years ago.  Here’s the view from the entrance of the store, quite a different site from what the 1850 Illustrated Guidebook describes:

“Having paid the admission money, we proceed, and presently find ourselves in a handsome new saloon on the ground floor, with a mellowed and subdued light, well adapted to the exhibition of wax figures, to which this portion of the museum is devoted.”

On either side of the room were the “admirably executed busts” of esteemed individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Cicero.  Then, one would turn to what seems to main event of the room, a waxwork tableau of The Drunkard’s Family, which the author compares to George Cruikshank’s Bottle (image below)

bottle(see also here).  Much has been writen on Temperance and the famous play The Drunkard that operated as a forum for the social activism associated with temperance, but I think it’s key to think about Barnum’s representation as being framed by the exemplary busts of “fathers” of Western civilization and society.  They almost literally act as a normative frame.  Images of drunken squalor, like depicted in the saloon of Barnum’s, are sensationalistic enough, but are heightened even more when they are framed by social ideals of creativity, moderation, and intellect.  Even the format, busts vs. waxworks, represents a different in respectable restraint versus popular excess.  Of course, at Barnum’s, one could be encouraged to look down on things like waxworks, but only if you simultaneously wanted to see more of it!


Modeling Spectatorship

An article over at’s excellent American Studies website, “Class Warfare on the Urban Stage” has a wonderful illustration from the Harvard Theatre Collection entitled “The audience the showmen tried to tame; at the Bowery Theatre, 1878,” possibly about Yiddish audiences.  Here, a group of actors are attempting to quell disturbances by over-eager audience members throughout the house.  I am not sure what event (or play) is being depicted, or if the image depicts s a moment of drama interrupted or a moment of multiple conflicts: among people on stage, among audiences  and between actors and audience.  While there were plenty of theatre riots in the nineteenth century, they were probably not so rambunctious as this; however, the image conveys a good sense of what many people (theatre owners, cultural elite, literati, etc.) feared, namely, lower class audiences disrupting theatre, thus “dumbing down” the state of art in the city (see previous post):


Bowery Theatre


When looking at images of historic theatres, it is easy to gloss over the individuals depicted.  They come off like filler, but they are often included as arguments for how audiences should behave in public entertainments.  A case in point, is the following illustration of the Grand Hall of Barnum’s American Museum from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1853 (image via New York Public Library):


Interior vew of the first grand hall of the Museum.

Regardless of what you think of Barnum, his museum, with its diverse collections of stuffed wildlife, freaks, artifacts, paintings, and show pieces, helped to reshape New York entertainment for “respectable” audiences.  Notably, alcohol and “loose” women were not allowed, and the museum’s galleries were intended for education, cultivation, and amusement.  The figures in this image create a model type of the mid-century spectator: nearly everyone is accompanied by a partner, they dress in nice clothes, their eyes are focused on the exhibits, and no one hurries.  While Barnum’s publicity tended to follow a “stun the audience with exclamations” strategy, the image is presenting the museum as a calm, well-ordered environment, populated by respectable people.

Although Barnum liked theatre, the reputation of the stage was questionable at best.  Because he was the type of guy who had his cake and ate it, he installed a “Lecture Room” in the museum.  People lectured on things like Temperance Reform, but he also presented plays, notable W.H. Smith’s The Drunkard and a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In contrast to the Bowery image, this is a place where one could see “higher” entertainments.  Again, the audience seems to model spectatorship:


Interior view of the lecture room of the American Museum, New York.

(image via NYPL via Ballou’s again)

The audience is calm, and, like the Academy of Music audience in the previous post, and is focused more on reading and each other than the events transpiring on stage.

By contrast, I’m not so sure that these are the experiences the public looked for in attending the museum.  They are clearly not what Barnum advertised in 1863:

[Advertisements for Barnum's American Museum.]


Or what people remembered, if these songs are to be trusted:

Image 1 of 1, A visit to Barnum's museum. Air- The man in the mo

Image 1 of 1, Pat's curiosity shop. H. De Marsan, Publisher, 60

(songs from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection: America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets)