In 1791 the Tammany Society of New York established what it called an American Museum. Formed in New York just two years earlier, shortly after the inauguration of George Washington, the Society was a social organization years removed from the political force it would later become in the city.
Established for the purpose of “… collecting and preserving whatever may relate to the history of our country and as well display all curiosities of nature and art “, the museum included relics from Africa, China and India as well as preserved animals. It was open on Tuesdays and Fridays and located in a back parlor of the New York’s old city hall.
As Tammany slowly evolved into more of a political machine in the early 1800’s, the museum became a burden on the Society. By 1810 they decided to sell the collection to John Scudder, a former sailor. Scudder opened his museum at 21 Chatham Street and expanded the displays to include wax sculptures of events in history and literature. He eventually would move the location to larger premises at Broadway and Ann Streets and soon boasted of having over 150,000 natural and foreign curiosities including fossils, stuffed animals and ancient artifacts. Lectures were given on the scientific merits of various relics and animals.
By the 1840’s John Scudder had passed away and his family decided that maintaining the large collection was more trouble than it was worth. They lacked the knack for finding those items that would keep the public’s interest. Fortunately, at the same time a young New Yorker trying to make his way in the entertainment business was looking for something to complement his variety troupe of performers. On November 27, 1841, Phineas T. Barnum bought the Scudder American museum from the family and renamed it after himself.
Barnum set about adding to the collection of curiosities. He kept the lectures but brought in freak shows and low brow entertainment. The idea was to have something for everyone. It was not only the beginning of museums the way we know them today, it was the start of the American Circus as well.
In an urban culture characterized by increasing difference—in taste, in subject, and in audience—it was the first to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of “attractions,” from the patchwork Fejee Mermaid to the diminutive and articulate Tom Thumb. But the Museum also promoted educational ends, including natural history in its menageries, aquaria, and taxidermy exhibits; history in its paintings, wax figures, and memorabilia.
The Barnum American Museum appealed to rich and poor, native and immigrant, men and women, educated and uneducated. In many ways it defined the American popular culture of the time and for the remainder of his life, P.T. Barnum would be at the forefront of American entertainment.