In the mid-19th c., there was no bigger celebrity in the world than Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883), better known by the stage name of General Tom Thumb.
Though born a large baby, Stratton mysteriously stopped growing at the age of six months, and remained 25 inches tall and fifteen pounds for most of his life. His diminutive size made him a curiosity, and at the age of five, he was taken under the enterprising wing of showman P.T.Barnum, a distant cousin. Barnum taught the boy to sing, dance, and impersonate famous people, and soon he launched young Charles - now renamed Tom Thumb - on a hugely successful American tour as an entertainer. In 1844, Barnum and Tom Thumb crossed the Atlantic and took Europe by storm. The tiny boy was an instant sensation in London, where he performed twice before Queen Victoria.
Barnum concocted elaborate stunts to create interest in his young protege. In London, Barnum ordered the famous miniature Tom Thumb carriage. Though perfectly proportioned for its occupant, the body of the carriage was only twenty inches in height, painted blue and white, and drawn by a team of Shetland ponies. The coachman and footmen were boys in livery.
Barnum was delighted by the crowds the small carriage attracted as it traveled slowly through the London streets."His carriage, ponies & servants in livery...kill the public," he boasted gleefully to a friend. "They can't survive! It will be the greatest hit in the universe, see if it ain't!" Barnum's prediction wasn't empty hyperbole; it was reported in 1847 that the receipts of the European tour were an astounding £150,000.
But at least a few Londoners failed to see the charm in Tom Thumb's carriage. This sour letter appeared in The Times on 24 December 1844, during that first European tour:
STREET NUISANCES. To the Editor of The Times.
Sir – I was passing along the Poultry this morning upon business of importance when my progress was arrested by a crowd of people, and the roadway was also blocked up by a confused mass of vehicles of all descriptions.To my surprise I found that the cause of all this stoppage and crowd was the wretched dwarf, called by his showman Tom Thumb! who was being slowly drawn along in a little carriage. Surely the police ought to interfere to prevent such nuisances as these. Here, at the busiest time of the day, under the very nose of the Lord Mayor, was the whole traffic of the city impeded by a showman's cart.... Tumblers and mountebanks are not allowed to exhibit their feats in public thoroughfares; but what do we gain in point of convenience if they are permitted to evade the law by creeping along at a snail's pace? The "Obstruction" to traffic constitutes the nuisance, whether that obstruction be complete or partial. Both Her Majesty's Government and the coporation of London are exerting themselves at the present moment to facilitate the buisness of this great town; but twice as many new streets as are now being made will not suffice, if they are to be invaded ad libtum by dwarfs and giants, cheap tailors and disinterested upholsterers, vendors of native oysters and dispensers of miraculous pills....
Above: Portrait of the Dwarf Tom Thumb, Stepping into his Carriage, c. 1870, London Stereoscopic Company Below: P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb, c. 1850
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.