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Amusements - Shows And Exhibitions

( Originally Published 1902 )

MARIONETTES, puppet-shows and waxworks were extremely popular. New exhibitions of this character were constantly being imported. Posture-makers, tumblers, acrobats, conjurers and rope-walkers not unfrequently appeared with these shows. Occasion-ally, the "artists" of the latter class, as they called themselves, considered themselves of sufficient importance to perform alone. In 1734, for instance, " is to be seen the famous German artist who is to perform the wonders of the world by dexterity of hand. The things he performs are too numerous to be enumerated here." We gain a good idea of these curious shows from the managers' own accounts, in 1747 and 1749 :

" To be seen at the house of Mr. Hamilton Hewetson at the Sign of the Spread Eagle, near White-Hall Slip, Punch's Opera, Bateman or the Unhappy Marriage, with a fine Dialogue between Punch and his wife Joan. Acted by a set of lively figures from Philadelphia. Also a most curious Posture-Maker Boy, late from Dublin, who performs with the utmost Dexterity, most surprising Postures, transforming himself into a great number of various Shapes, together with a great Variety of Tumbling, exceeding pleasant and diverting; and many other curiosities too tedious to mention."

"To be seen at a large theatrical room next to the Sign of the Dolphin (built on purpose) near the workhouse, for the entertainment of gentlemen, ladies and others to-morrow evening and to continue with different plays every week, Punch's company of comedians."

" This is to acquaint the curious that the effigies of the Royal Family and that of the Queen of Hungary—and other curiosities in wax are to be seen (from 7 A. M. to 6 P. in.) and as the stay of the said curiosities will be but a few days in town the price is reduced to 1/6 for each person. N. B. None to be admitted without present pay."

In 1753, a woman was attracting attention. Interesting as Mr. Dugee's feats were, the " Female Samson " must have created the most enthusiasm. The Dugees explained their performance as follows :

" (By Permission) Will be exhibited by Anthony Jacob Dugee, the young Indian, and little negro boy the accustomed surprising and entertaining performances on the stiff rope and slack wire (scarcely perceptible) together with the usual equilibries on the chairs and pins, as well by the black as the Indian boy. After which the company will be agreeably entertained with the wonderful feats of strength and activity of Mrs. Dugee which has given so much satisfaction to H. R. H. the Princess Dowager of Wales and the Royal Family of Great Britain that they were pleased to call her The Female Samson. I. She lies with her body extended between two chairs and bears an anvil of 300 lb. on her breast, and will suffer two men to strike it with sledge hammers. II. She will bear six men to stand on her breast lying in the same position. III. She will lift the above anvil by the hair of her head. IV. She will suffer a stone of 700 lb. to lye on her breast and throw it off six feet from her. In particular, Mr. Dugee will dance the stiff-rope with iron fetters on his feet. The whole to conclude with a dance called the Drunken Peasant."

No show, however, in the middle of the century could compare with the Tragedy of Young Bateman. It was thrilling. In 1756, we read :

" Now to be seen by the curious, at the house of Mr. Adam Vandenbergh in the Broadway, a curious musical machine which represents the tragedy of Bateman, viz. First, two folding doors fly open, a curtain draws itself up, and exhibits a company of gentlemen and ladies, with knives and forks in motion, sat down to a wedding dinner. The bride having promised marriage to young Bateman, proving false and marrying old Jermain. Bateman hangs himself on her wedding-day. Four cupids fly down and carry Bateman away. The bride still enjoying herself at dinner, she at last falls from the table dead; and her rosy colour changes to a deadly paleness. After which, the Devil comes up, and carries her away. Here the curtain falls, and ends the first Act. The curtain drawing up a second time, instead of the wedding exhibits young Bateman laid in state, with the mourners about him, dressed in black coats and white hatbands; the room hung with escutcheons, and six ringers, in their shirts, ringing the bells. The representation of a carpenter's yard, with people at work, with several other moving figures."

About the middle of the century, there was exhibited a splendid collection of waxworks which met with an unfortunate accident. The sad calamity is thus described :

"On Monday evening about six o'clock a fire was discovered in the house of Mrs. Wright, the ingenious artist in wax-works, and proprietor of the figures so nearly resembling the life which have for some time past been exhibited in this city to general satisfaction. The accident happened when Mrs. Wright was abroad, and only children at home ; and was occasioned by one of them accidentally setting fire to a curtain inclosing some of the figures. The child for some time in vain endeavoured to extinguish the fire, which was soon committed to the clothes of the figures and the wax of which they were composed. The neighbours immediately assembled and with the greatest care and expedition gave all possible assistance and preserving the household goods; the fire-engines played into the house, but tho' most of the waxwork was destroyed (together with some new pieces which Mrs. Wells, sister to Mrs. Wright, had lately brought from Charlestown, the whole amounting it is said to the value of several hundred pounds) yet she was so fortunate as to save the curious pieces of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield, the Pennsylvania Farmer, and some others, which she still continues to exhibit; and we hear she proposes to repair the loss sustained by this fire as soon as possible, by making some new and curious pieces."

Two months later, the damage was repaired, the new pieces being the murder of Abel by Cain, and the treachery of Delilah to Samson. In 1767, an exhibition for the Benefit of the Poor was held. " In a commodious room, which is now fitted up in theatrical manner, for the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen, at the Sign of the Orange Tree on Golden Hill, will be presented the noted Bayly's performances by Dexterity of Hand, with a variety of curious Balances by the noted Hymes, lately arrived from Saddlers Wells ; with the facetious humours of Mr. Punch, his family, and company of artificial comedians three feet high ; a view of the sea with ships, mermaids, fish, sea-monsters, etc., which is allowed the most natural curiosity of the kind ever seen ; and a court of twenty-five figures, or an assembly of maids and bachelors."

In addition to waxworks and other artificial figures, there was great interest in living monsters and curiosities. Animals familiar enough to us seem to have excited the public considerably. These were shown in private houses and taverns. In 1749,

"We hear that Mr. Bonnin has got one of the greatest curiosities in nature. This wonderful phenomenon is beyond our power to describe as fully as to communicate an adequate idea of it. It is a crab fish, with most of its shell on both sides, preserved in. its natural colour, and the spawn is petrified into a hard stone."

This, however, paled before the next exhibit which was offered in 1751:

"To be seen at the House of John Bonnin next door to Mr. Peter Brower's near the new Dutch Church a curious live Porcupine of various colours; a creature arm'd with Darts, which resemble Writing Pens, tho' of different Colours, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attack'd tho' otherwise of great good Humour and Gentleness. He will eat in the Presence of any Person, and is justly Es-teemed a great Rarity in these Parts."

The obliging and altogether admirable porcupine had a rival for popular favour in the same year :

"Be seen at the House of Mr. Edward Willet at White Hall a Creature called a Japanese of about 2 Feet high, his Body resembling a human Body in all parts except the feet and tail : He walks upright and performs various Actions to Admiration such as walking upon a Line, hanging and swinging under it, exercising the Firelock, dances to any Tune and Sun-dry other Things too tedious to mention. The Sense and Agility of this Creature renders him worthy the Observation of the Curious."

In 1754, there was " To be seen at the house of Roger Magrah, a Living Allegator, full four feet long." In 1755, " Capt. Seymour in the ship, Fame, has brought in with him a young lioness of about two foot high. He likewise had on board two ostriches which we are told he brought from the African coast, being fowls of that country, but they both died on the passage." In 1759, a buffalo and " a wild animal lately from the Mississippi " and in 1769, we read " a Tyger to be seen at the King's Arm's Tavern on the Green. Price 6d. 'Tis a very beautiful animal." Again it was announced :

In 1773, " The wonderful electrical fish is exhibited at the house of John Rawdon, hairdresser, in Broad St. ; also at Mr. Allen's stables, near the Fly Market, a remarkable fine young elk. The fish has never (that we know of) been seen in the northern parts of America or Europe. Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily." The elk would receive visitors at 6d. for a grown person, and 3d. for a child.

For several years, Mr. Bonnin gave English prospects or views. On Dec. 12th he advertised " the first eight English prospects and next week the other eight, which are all that he has as yet shown." On Jan. 7, 1749, he promised that he would show seven English cathedrals ; and on the same day, he announced :

" The great wager depending between some English and French gentlemen of this city, viz., whether the English palaces, gardens, etc., or the French ones, are the finest and most magnificent, is to be decided at Mr. Bonnin's room to-morrow if it proves good weather by a jury of twelve men who were never in Europe. This week twelve views of Venice not on the canals; next week twelve on the canals." The following week he gives twelve ships of all sizes in all stations of weather "and also prospects of Rome and Naples."

He understood the art of advertising. In 1748, the following was printed :

"We hear that Mr. Bonnin is so crowded with company to view his perspectives that he can scarce get even so much time as to eat, drink, or say his prayers, from the time he gets out of bed till he repairs to it again ; and it is the opinion of some able physician that if he makes rich, it must be at the expense of the health of his body; and of some learned divines, that it must be at the expense of the welfare of his poor soul! Nay, his own old shipmates, who went a privateering with him, swear he would have stood a better chance for a fair wind to the haven of rest, and would have come to port with more safety had he continued still aboard! They are a sett of sad dogs to talk so profanely of such a subject."

A few weeks later, the papers announced :

" Mr. Bonnin intended to go today to Long Island, but the people of all ranks and ages crowded to see him in such numbers all the week, which encouragement, together with the cries, tears and prayers of the populace, as he passes along the streets, to continue another week longer in town, have at last prevailed upon him to defer his removal till next week."

" It has now become the daily custom of our ladies of distinction to ask their husbands and sweethearts to treat them to a walk to Kensington, Hampton Court, Vaux Hall, Ranelagh House and other grand palaces and gardens in and about London, as naturally as if they lived by the Royal Exchange or St. Paul's ; and, as in good weather they used to do, to treat them with a jaunt to Long Island or King's Bridge. To en-force their arguments, they insist upon it that there is less danger and expence in visiting the former than the latter place, and abundance more pleasure and instruction. In short, there's nobody can set up the least face for politeness and conversation without having been with Mr. Bonnin ; and embellishing their discourses with making judicious and elaborate observations and criticisms on this, that, and the other building, improvement, or dress. So that instead of our travellers entertaining the ladies with their feigned and confused accounts of the fine palaces they have seen in England, the case is quite altered ; for the ladies correct and often detect their false pre-tended description, and entertain them with a just, beautiful and regular one."

Anything of the description of a panorama, dissolving views (particularly those that showed foreign buildings and scenery), musical clocks, or microscopes always attracted an audience. Frequently, too, the men who owned such devices were bidden to exhibit their pictures in private houses, and if the apparatus could not be removed, for a consideration the views were shown to a private audience at any hour that such exclusive ladies and gentlemen desired. What was evidently a diorama was shown in 1747 :

"At the house of Mr. John Hays at the sign of St. Andrew's Cross, near the Fly Market, is to be seen a large moving machine or land and water skip, representing many things moving nearly imitating nature. N. B. If any gentlemen or ladies hath a mind to have private view of the same, they may, by giving two hours' warning beforehand."

An exhibit that created something more than a ripple of excitement in the town in 1756 was heralded in the following notice : "That celebrated piece of mechanism, called the Microcosm or World in Miniature, is expected in town this day from Philadelphia." Everybody went to see it. A poetical description of it by an enthusiastic admirer alone filled two columns of a newspaper.

In 1763, the " Miniature city of Malaga" was shown at the house of Mr. Provoost, gunsmith, at the price of one shilling ; and in 1764, the town had the advantage of seeing " Jerusalem, a view of that famous city, after a work of seven years." This " represents Jerusalem, the Temple of Solomon, his Royal Throne, the noted Houses, Towers and Hills ; likewise the Sufferings of our Saviour from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Cross on the Hill of Golgotha ; an artful piece of statuary, in which everything is exhibited in the most natural manner and worthy to be seen by the curious." In 1774 mechanical shows are offered. The first is :

" The unparallel'd Musical Clock, made by the great master of Machinery David Lockwood. This great curiosity performs by Springs only ; it is a machine incomparable in its kind ; it excells all others in the Beauty of its Structure; it is most entertaining in its Music, and plays the choicest Airs from the celebrated Operas with the greatest Nicety and Exactness. It performs with beautiful Graces, ingeniously and variously intermix'd, the French Horn Pieces, perform'd upon the Organ, German and Common Flute, Flageolet, etc., as Sonatas, Concertas, Marches, Minuets, Jiggs, and Scotch Airs, composed by Corelli, Alberoni, Mr. Handel, and other great and eminent Masters of Music."

The second is thus described :

" By desire of several Gentlemen and Ladies, The Solar or Camera Obscura Microscope which has given such general satisfaction, and so great a Concourse of Gentlemen and Ladies continually attend to see it, is now removed to the House of Mr. John Kip in Broad Street, where the Sun will serve all the Day long.

" It is the most entertaining of any Microscope whatsoever, and magnifies objects to a most surprising Degree. The Animalculae in several Sorts of Fluids, with many other living and dead Objects too tedious to mention, will be shown incredulously magnified, and at the same Time distinct, to the entire Satisfaction of the Spectators : As the circulation of the Blood in a Frog's Foot, a Flea, a Fish's Tail, and in many small In-sects, that an Hundred of them will not exceed the Bigness of a grain of Sand, with their young in them. This Curiosity was never shewn before by any Person that Travels."

Humorous illustrated lectures were also in vogue.

" By permission of His Excellency the Governor, Mr. Wall the comedian- will exhibit at Mr. Hull's great Room on Wednesday Evening July 21, 1773, a new lecture written by the author of the much admired Lecture on Heads. The Paintings, etc., are entirely new and never before exhibited in America." It seems that this was a sort of stereopticon, or magic lantern exhibition accompanied with the usual entertaining and explanatory comments. It was in three parts and the excessive head dresses of the day were held up to ridicule. In the first part one of the topics was "the sheep's tail macaroni," and this was followed by the " thick stock ditto " and the "turn down collar." Among the subjects of the second part were: "Ladies Heads in High Taste, Men's Hats, Maccaroni Thanet, and Corded Thanet." Part III. included " Ladies High Head Dresses; Artificial Candle Light Face and the appearance of the same Face the next morning; the Grand Secret of Attraction, Two Portraits of the Same Lady in a good and ill Humour; Courtship and Matrimony; Matrimonial Vis-a-vis; and Complete Macaroni." The price of each ticket was five shillings. The managers assured the public that " Care will be taken to keep the Room cool."

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