Monday, November 25th, 2013...9:00 am

Ba(rnum) humbug

Jump to Comments

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Santo Domingo collection.

Newly represented among the authors in the Santo Domingo Collection is the showman and author P.T. Barnum. Shown here is an 1866 copy of Barnum’s survey/memoir The humbugs of the world, translated into French as Les blagues de l’univers. A humbug, of course, is anything intended to mislead or anyone in the business of misrepresentation. The book, then, is a survey of societal and historical humbugs ranging from spiritualists and ghost stories to adulterers of food and conniving businessmen, accompanied by Barnum’s personal reminiscences as a humbug himself.

The volume bears the bookplate of collector Charles de Mandre and the autograph of collector Jules Bobin; more exciting, however, is a two-page letter written by Barnum and bound into the front. The letter is dated 16 July 1858, and its recipient is the French entertainer and philanthropist Alexandre Vattemare. Vattemare was himself a fascinating figure: trained as a surgeon, he made his fortune as a ventriloquist (performing as Monsieur Alexandre) after his habit of ventriloquizing corpses during surgical studies cost him his medical diploma. Once his fortune was made, Vattemare spent the latter portion of his life collecting rare books and objects, and advocating for public libraries and for cultural and literary interchange. He had a hand in the founding of the Boston Public Library, and his cultural-exchange system, by which books, coins, mineral samples, and other cultural and natural artifacts were exchanged between library systems internationally, led to today’s interlibrary loan.

It is on the subject of mineral specimens that Barnum writes to Vattemare in the letter: from its content, it originally enclosed two photographs of a particularly large rock crystal harvested from a Mexican silver mine and on display at an American museum. There is something of the persuasive carnival barker in Barnum’s tone when, insisting upon the specimen’s authenticity, he assures Vattemare that ‘photography cannot lie’.

P.T. Barnum. Les blagues de l’univers. Paris: Achille Faure, 1866. AZ999.B313 1866.

Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for contributing this post.

Comments are closed.