Women in P. T. Barnum's New York City

by Ann Fabian

This 600 word essay relates the place of female customers at the American Museum to the evolving public and private roles of working-class and middle-class women in mid-nineteenth century New York City. Links to images and documents from the period that illuminate these roles appear at the end of the essay.


In the late 1840s, Barnum began to present "highly moral and instructive domestic dramas" in his Lecture Room. He welcomed the middle-class women who would never have attended a performance in the cityís rowdy theaters. Barnum reassured respectable women that inside his establishment they would never meet the "vulgarisms and immorality . . . sometimes permitted" on stages in places like the Bowery Theater down the street. Barnumís museum was something altogether different from the boisterous male world of the theater and tavern where the only unescorted women were the prostitutes in the third tier. In fact, Barnum promised to keep out "females of known bad character."

He also promised middle-class patrons that they would be safe from what must have seemed to them the unruly world of the streets. In the middle years of the nineteenth century, New Yorkers of different classes jostled over proper behavior in the cityís public spaces. Young working class women were sometimes loud in public. They sometimes dressed in their own exuberant fashions. Some middle-class observers complained that they had a hard time distinguishing working girls from prostitutes. Barnum barred prostitutes from his establishment, but he also promised to try to curb the easy, youthful behavior that some confused with prostitution.

Barnum took advantage of the large cultural shift that brought middle-class values of home and family to the center of American public life. Salaried workers and retail clerks replaced artisans and farmers as the dominant figures on the American cultural scene. It was women who engineered this cultural shift, promoting what historians have called the "cult of domesticity." Although they could not vote, women, particularly middle-class white women, exercised influence in more subtle ways. They directed the social and cultural resources of new middle-class families, presiding over their homes while their husbands went out to work. They instructed their families in the tenets of Christianity and brought up sons to be industrious, good, and honest clerks. They joined together in Protestant revivals and reform organizations, working together to promote temperance, abolish slavery, curb prostitution, and extend womenís rights. They read and wrote for periodicals that ran stories, celebrating feelings and detailing the sentimental connections of the heart.

Barnum understood that women with such middle-class aspirations might lead their families to his museum if it too could be made to seem a part of this respectable world. He addressed his patrons as "Ladies" and flattered them for their good taste and cultural knowledge. To keep his audience happy and reassure them of their propriety, he presented entertainments that celebrated Christianity, domesticity, and sobriety. He staged Biblical melodramas and opened his Lecture Room to religious services. He made Swedish singer Jenny Lind into the epitome of this sentimental culture, celebrating her piety, charity, and sincerity. Barnumís strategies were so successful that by the 1860s women could attend his entertainments without gentlemen accompanying them and not risk a single wagging tongue.

Yet it was not so simple. Working-class women, who comprised one-third of the cityís labor force by 1870, had long defied the proclaimed geographical boundaries of gender. Moreover, some of the controversies that surrounded Barnumís entertainments help us see the contradictions in womenís position. For example, Barnum celebrated Jenny Lindís love of privacy while promoting her public performances. For a few years, he staged enormously popular baby contests pretending to honor the sanctity of domesticity and motherhood. Yet some critics noticed that the success of the shows undermined the very intimacy and privacy on which true domesticity was based. And amid the moral talk and edifying exhibits, attractions such as the Circassian Beauty--with her plunging neckline and story of white slavery--still offered Museum visitors a taste of the Bowery.

Also see these primary documents:

The American Woman's Home (1869) (Image)

"Running the gauntlet," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 16, 1874 (Image)

The Female Industry Association, Working Man's Advocate, March 8, 1845

Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842)

Mose and Lize on the Third Avenue, New York, 1848 (Image)

Young Democracy at the Theater, 1852 (Image)