Urban Popular Culture in the Age of Barnum

by Peter G. Buckley

This 900-word essay describes the vibrant new forms of popular culture that developed in the growing cities of the antebellum U.S. The explosive growth of live entertainment and print culture included, but was hardly limited to, Barnum's American Museum, and incorporated elements of celebrity and international transmission that are still familiar today.


Between 1820 and 1860 the number of theater seats in New York City increased twenty fold, roughly double the rate of the increase in population. Old forms of performance—melodrama, menageries, opera, and orchestral music—that had once shared the stage with legitimate drama now had their own dedicated spaces, as the number of performance sites charging admission also multiplied about forty fold. Over the same period there were six times the number of daily newspaper titles, but more than sixty times the number of copies in circulation. Whatever the index, the explosive growth in popular culture’s forms and audiences more than matched the increase in population. The age of the “common man” in politics and culture had arrived, and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum was at its center. “The Great Showman” harnessed the new engine of the popular press, developed new forms of performance and display, and, above all, imagined a limitless audience for his shows.

Like the rise of the modern political party system during the same decades, the development of this new commercial culture was not just a change in scale but of character. Rather than merely expanding, each cultural medium changed to accommodate the interests of more extensive audiences. In theater, for instance, interest in melodrama, frequently with revolutionary heroes and themes, eclipsed the older enthusiasms for English comedy of manners. Smaller stages developed new forms of variety entertainment—notably blackface minstrelsy beginning in the 1840s—that appealed to working-class audiences and expressed popular amusement at the pretensions of high culture. Barnum himself, during his lease of Vauxhall Gardens, was an innovator in appropriating figures from the street to “act” themselves on stage; he once advertised a shouting competition for Fulton market butchers.

During the 1830s, the advent of inexpensive newspapers changed the economics and the very nature of the American press. This new “penny” press relied on advertising rather than on subscriptions, and instead of leading with business and political “intelligence,” the penny press covered murders, political graft, and the activities of celebrities. Barnum had a close relationship with the cheap press, placing extensive and innovative advertisements for the American Museum and his other attractions. Indeed, his columns of advertising are best seen as part of the “show” itself, framing the visitors’ attention to the curiosity before the “real” encounter.

All of these forms developed in a remarkably free marketplace. There was little censorship, at least at the federal level, and no interference in local licensing procedures. Unlike England, where the popular press was still subject to stamp taxes, American penny papers and magazines circulated at little cost, and the government development of an efficient postal service helped to subsidize the creation of this new media. There were also very few religious prohibitions limiting the new popular culture. Conservative ministers railed against the stage as false representation and warned their parishioners against the perils of novel and magazine reading, but with little result. By the 1860s, some clergy actually argued that theatrical productions might aid the pulpit in the work of moral education. In calling his own commercial stage a “lecture room,” Barnum may have been masking its entertainment value so as not to offend the religiously inclined, but he was also anticipating those liberal Protestants who argued for a more relaxed attitude toward the private choices of their congregants.

By the antebellum era, American popular culture was already international. Such was the public’s demand for novelty that acts, plays, and stories crossed the Atlantic with remarkable speed. Much material was adapted for local reception, and, in the absence of an international copyright agreement, novels were sometimes translated and passed off as another author’s work. On the other hand, an author or actor who toured the United States in person could realize immense profits. Actor William Charles Macready received the equivalent of five years of income from his 1842 tour of American cities alone, and Barnum’s management of Jenny Lind broke all profit records.

American forms were also popular in Europe. Blackface minstrelsy and American popular song gained instant success. The singing temperance family, the Hutchinsons, earned $100,000 for their worthy cause during an 1844 tour of England, and even the dour Queen Victoria was delighted by her audiences with Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum. This transatlantic trade in distinctively “national” material encouraged the creation of “Yankee,” “Frontiersman,” and “Negro” stereotypes in American theater and song. It also led to a phenomenon that has continued to the present, where the passage of American (especially African-American) cultural material across the Atlantic frequently obscured its class or racial origin. By 1860, black dance styles that were originally American and once considered subversive were being re-exported from England as exciting new forms.

Yet there were two important ways in which this first stage in American popular culture was unlike our own. First, it was still local. Though magazines were nationally distributed, and theatrical companies went on tour, much popular culture was still made by small scale operators who did not have the benefit of national booking and distribution agencies. Barnum’s museum remained a single site venture. Second, this commercial culture, though “popular,” was hardly universal. Race and class still divided the acceptance of popular forms, and the borders between the rough and the respectable were known and strictly observed. Although familiar to us now, in their nascent antebellum form the fame of celebrities, the power of advertising, and the celebration of secular street life did not penetrate the texture of everyday life to the same extent as in the present day.

Also see these primary documents:

At the Theatre (Image)

Penny Pictures (Image)

A Visit to a New York Theater, 1802

No Dainty Kid-Glove Business