Barnum and Science in the Antebellum Era

by Paul Semonin

This 900 word essay traces changing understandings of science and scientific knowledge during the antebellum era. With its many natural history exhibits (both real and humbug), Barnum's American Museum marked an important intersection between science and popular culture. Links to images and documents from the period that illuminate Barnum's use of science appear at the end of the essay.

In the antebellum era, science in the United States was in transition from a broadly-based natural history culture to the specialized disciplines that later made scientific pursuits the exclusive domain of trained professionals. After the Revolutionary War, natural history became an integral part of the ideology of American nationalism, enshrined in both natural rights doctrine and religious beliefs. Popularization of science reflected not only the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, but also the belief that the study of natural history provided evidence of divine design in the natural world.

In the early nineteenth century, this broad definition of natural history culture led many citizens of the new republic to regard purely scientific endeavors and “scientists” themselves with suspicion. The term “scientist” was not coined until the 1840s, when the nation’s first professional scientific associations were founded. By this time, many scientific disciplines, including botany, zoology, geology, mineralogoy, and chemistry were beginning to adopt specialized language and complex theories that only professional scientists with formal education could comprehend. Most scientists in the antebellum period were deeply religious men who sought to overcome the public’s suspicion by stressing the harmony between nature and revelation, as well as the practical value of scientific endeavors.

Prior to Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum, the United States witnessed a rapid growth of institutions devoted to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, especially its benefits for the artisan and commercial classes. The principal vehicle for this popularization of science was the lyceum movement, forums for public lectures created in part as a reaction to the growing professionalism within the scientific community. By the 1830s, there were over 3,000 lyceums throughout the country, including the Lowell Institute, where lectures on scientific topics attracted thousands of applicants, far surpassing the capacity of the lecture halls.

The core of Barnum’s American Museum consisted of sizable collections of natural history specimens, including stuffed animals, seashells, insects, butterflies, minerals and a geological cabinet with thirty cases of rocks and fossils. Over the years, Barnum’s menagerie of live animals featured elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, anacondas, and the first hippopotamus to be exhibited in the United States. Even though these exhibits were displayed without systematic scientific purpose, they were valued by leading scientists of the era. Louis Agassiz, the founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Anatomy, testified to the authenticity of the whales exhibited in Barnum’s aquarium, the first of its kind in the United States. Barnum’s unique natural history collections attracted men of science even as they denounced his most successful hoaxes and humbug.

Against the backdrop of growing professionalization, popular science came to be identified with exotic oddities and anomalies, like the curiosities and “wonders” exhibited at Barnum’s Museum. From the very beginning, Barnum tried to give his exhibits an aura of scientific purpose by using the opinion of scientists to generate public interest and controversy. In 1842, Barnum created a fictitious British scientist named “Dr. Griffin” to promote his famous “Feejee mermaid,” a monkey’s torso joined to a fish’s tail. Exhibited as a natural history specimen, the mermaid was displayed with other animals identified as “connecting links in the great chain of Animated Nature.” Playing upon the fears of a public that felt threatened by the new scientific culture, Barnum’s humbug tweaked the noses of the “scientists,” while providing museum patrons with educational exhibits and humorous parodies of scientific ideas.

Barnum’s exploitation of the volatile interplay between popular science and the emerging community of professional scientists is illustrated by his handling of the most controversial scientific issue of the antebellum era--the growing debate over human origins and evolution. The 1844 publication of Robert Chamber's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation created a sensation by proposing a succession of geological epochs characterized by the progressive development of organic forms, both animal and vegetable. Capitalizing on the controversy surrounding pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution, Barnum exhibited the nation’s first living orang-outang, calling it the “connecting link between human and brute creation.”

After the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Barnum introduced a series of exhibits entitled “What Is It?” where the orang-outang was replaced by a black male, portrayed as a half-human, half-animal creature. To assure patrons of the authenticity of his exhibit, Barnum again invoked the authority of scientists: “It is the opinion of most scientific men that he is the connecting link between the wild native African and the orang-outang,” his broadside declared. In a diary entry peppered with racial slurs, George Templeton Strong, a New York attorney, called Barnum’s exhibit “a great fact for Darwin” even while he identified the actor as a “negro dwarf.”

By the end of the antebellum era, professional scientists no longer felt the need to emphasize the utility of science, nor to place it in the service of religious beliefs. They had begun to see charlatanism and popular science as obstacles to their professional aspirations. In 1869, shortly after the American Museum burned to the ground, the New York gentry united behind efforts to found the American Museum of Natural History, where science became the exclusive province of trained professionals. Ironically, in his later years, Barnum himself made peace with his critics in the scientific community by becoming an ardent supporter of the new museums. In 1876, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution asked Barnum for a face mask to prepare a bust to be placed in the museum’s gallery of “men who have distinguished themselves for what they have done as promoters of the natural sciences.”

Also see these primary documents:

A Word About Museums, The Nation, July 27, 1865

"The Mermaid, and Other Wonderful Specimens of the Animal Creation," 1842

"A Correct Likeness of the Feejee Mermaid," New-York Herald, July 17, 1842 (Image)

“What Is It? Or ‘Man Monkey,’” Barnum’s Gallery of Wonders, No. 26 (Image)