Barnum’s Christmas Show in 1864

If you wanted a hippopotamus for Christmas, then heading to Barnum’s American Museum for the 1864 holiday season is just the ticket!

I find it fascinating to take a closer look at the culture of the Civil War era and became curious about what Union soldiers on leave might have done in New York City, aside from the family gatherings and dinners. Surely, some New York soldiers took their families or sweethearts to Barnum’s and if they did, here is what they could have seen.

(You’ll find a transcription of the flowery adjective-laden advertisement below.)

(Library of Congress)



Christmas and New Year Holiday Bill.

The Manager has been determined to make these Holidays the most attractive and bewitching of any of their predecessors, and trust that the following combination of Novelties, Curiousities, and Dramatic Entertainments will prove this determination successful.


From the Coast of Labrador is alone a wonder worthy of attention of every educated and scientific person, as well as the merely curious. He is seen at all hours swimming about his large tank in all his native grace and grandeur.


From the River Nile in Egypt, the great Behemoth of the Scriptures, see Job, chap 40, is the first and only one of these colossal animals ever brought to America, and the greatest wonder of the world.


Perform a great variety of amusing and interesting tricks; Children especially find this exhibition replete with interest.


Occupying one of the large Halls of the Museum, is of itself an Exhibition worth more than the cost of Admission to the entire Museum. Its numerous crystal ponds of River and Ocean water, abounding with Living Fish from nearly every River and Sea, are alive with interest to all classes. One tank has 8 LARGE SPRINKED BROOK TROUT, the largest and finest ever seen together; another has 12 BEAUTIFUL SEA HORSES, the most interesting tiny inhabitants of the great deep, the heads and necks of which resemble, in their graceful curves, those of the horse. No visitor should fail seeing them. Indeed, every tank in the entire collection is replete with interest.


In the upper saloon, is always attended with a crowd of smiling faces.

THE LIVING MONSTER SNAKES are more wonderful than pleasing, yet always surrounded by crowds of interested spectators.

THE LIVING LEARNED SEAL is regarded universally as “Beautiful Creature” and his sparkling eyes are the admiration, if not the envy, of his fair admirers. These, and many more curiosities, are all to be seen at all hours, while EVERY AFTERNOON AND EVENING during the entire Holiday Season there will be


and on CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR DAYS these Performances will be given nearly EVERY HOUR, Day and Evening, that every visitor shall be enabled to see one such performance, as well as all the Curiosities.

To add still further to the interest of THIS GREAT FESTIVE SEASON, the Manager has expended over Seven Thousand Dollars in the preparation of a New Holiday Piece, never before seen in America, entitled

THE BOWER OF BEAUTY  or, THE HOME OF THE FAIRIES in the Enchanted Forest, in which occurs a GORGEOUS MECHANICAL SCENE by Randall, of London, in which appear 40 BEAUTIFUL YOUNG LADIES, NYMPHS OF THE AIR.

This scene will be one of the dazzling splendor, the most magnificent thing of it kind ever gotten up in this country, and will alone repay fourfold the cost of admission to the entire Museum. It will be produced every Afternoon and Evening during the entire Holiday season, and at each performance on Christmas and New Years days.


4 Responses to Barnum’s Christmas Show in 1864

  1. So very cool. I love learning more about early museums in America and Barnum’s is one of the most interesting I have read about!

  2. Given Barnum’s demonstrated capacity for hyperbole, I couldn’t help wondering what the extraordinary creatures were that he was displaying. A living whale in a tank? An hippopotamus on Broadway? Did any cynical or reality stricken observer do an analysis of what it was that Barnum was mislabeling?

  3. Fascinating social and cultural history. Barnum’s Museum was part of the broader “Leisure Movement“ that begin in 19th century industrial cities, and really took off after the Civil War. Museums, Cycloramas, and eventually movie houses, trollies to ocean boardwalks, amusement parks, dance halls, and national sports comprised the increasing leisure options for workers with shorter work days and livable wages. -Troy Harman

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