Vinnie born; the first wagon train arrives in California.
Mormons arrive in Utah
The issue of polygamy, specifically as outlined by the Mormon faith, was nearly as big an issue as slavery was in antebellum America. Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, was a figure of much interest as well as controversy; Vinnie met him on her tour west, and made no attempt to hide her disgust at the practice of polygamy and the paternalistic society of the Mormons in Utah. For more information, this is a rich, balanced site (The Library of Congress; American Memory).
Vinnie begins her career on the Mississippi; the first transatlantic telegraph received in New York City.
Charles Darwin publishes Origin of Species.
The Civil War begins
This year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, the defining moment that shaped the identity of America forever. Vinnie’s public life was played out against this great, epic backdrop; she was in Mississippi on the very eve of secession, saw at least two brothers go off to war, visited the troops outside of Washington when she and Charles were visiting on their honeymoon tour. Soon after the war was over, she was in the battle-scarred South, seeing firsthand the ravages of war and even glimpsing the Ku Klux Klan in its infancy.
There are many wonderful Internet sites about the war; here are a couple of my favorites: The Valley of the Shadow. This rich site depicts the war’s impact on two small communities, one north, one south, through diaries, letters and public records.
One site was particularly helpful to me—The Civil War on Son of the South.net. This is a treasure trove of actual Harper’s Weekly newspapers during the war. Included are many articles mentioning Lavinia Warren Stratton and General Charles Stratton!
Vinnie and Charles Stratton marry in the most celebrated wedding ceremony of the age; Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. The General Tom Thumb Company, on its way to perform in Canada, is on one of the last trains to leave New York before the Draft Riots destroyed the train tracks into the city.
The Civil War ends.
Vinnie and the Tom Thumb Company travel the new Transcontinental Railroad months after the Golden Spike, signaling its completion, is driven; Gen. Philip Sheridan reportedly says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Perhaps no single event was responsible for both settling and destroying the West than the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10th, 1869. Suddenly you could cross the entire continent by railroad; the route from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California only took four days, four hours and forty minutes; a journey that only years before had taken wagon trains months to travel. New towns sprang up along the route; lawlessness moved west with the population, and the Indian wars truly began. Vinnie and the General Tom Thumb Company were one of the first passengers, commencing their round-the-world tour in July of 1869 by traveling west on the new railroad.
Vinnie and company return home from their around-the-world tour; Lewis Carroll publishes Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone; National League baseball is founded; the Battle of Little Big Horn is fought.
Everyone knows of the Battle of Little Big Horn, one of the great disasters in US Army history, precipitated by General George Armstrong Custer—who first came to notice during the Civil War. The Indian Wars were a tragic part of our country’s history, beginning in 1612 with the Powatan Confederacy, a 12-year conflict in Virginia that left many colonists and Indians dead, and ending in 1890 with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, when the last fighting band of the Lakota were destroyed by the U.S. Army. In Vinnie’s time the saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” was accepted as a matter of fact; she wrote about her few encounters with the Native Americans, on her western trip, with undisguised distaste. Unfortunately, the damaging stereotype of the brave US settler/soldier, and the evil, often drunk, Indian persisted well into the 20th century, in movies and television. Now, however, we have a better understanding of our nation’s ugly treatment of the original inhabitants of North America.
This site is a thoughtful examination of Custer, welcoming all viewpoints as Custer remains a controversial figure even to this day, as well as the immediate events leading up to the battle.
Vinnie’s sister Minnie dies; Edison patents the phonograph.
Edison invents the incandescent light bulb
Thomas Alva Edison, born in 1847, thus making him a contemporary of Vinnie’s, was of course the greatest inventor of his time. From the phonograph to the light bulb, even to his ideas for a talking book—predating the audio book by generations!—he single-handedly changed America during Vinnie’s lifetime. This website is devoted to his life and his inventions.
Charles and Vinnie tour with Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth”; President Garfield is assassinated.
Charles Stratton dies; first telephone line connects New York City and Chicago.
First motion picture made in the United States (Fred Ott’s Sneeze).
Vinnie publishes a few articles, intended to foreshadow her Autobiography (which is never published in her lifetime), in the New York Tribune; the San Francisco earthquake occurs.
General Electric patents the electric toaster.
World War I begins.
Vinnie appears in her only motion picture.
America’s Royal Wedding
Before there was Kate and William, before there was Diana and Charles, there was—Lavinia and Charles.
1863 was a tumultuous year in American history; the year that would see Gettysburg began with the official passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. While the Civil War ground on in the South, New York was seething with unrest; the war was not popular there, as a host of “Copperheads”—Northerners sympathetic to the Confederacy—stirred up unrest. The immigrants, particularly the Irish, seethed with hatred at all the newly-freed slaves making their way to the city, and into the job market. The impending draft, which excused any gentleman who could afford to pay the $300 commutation fee, further divided the populace.
But in February, an event took place which captured the entire nation’s fancy, and knocked all news of the Civil War off the front pages—the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb.
The “Loving Lilliputians,” the “Little Queen of Beauty” and her “Fairy Prince”—all of New York society clamored to be invited to their nuptials. Every detail of Vinnie’s dainty trousseau was reported, in lavish detail; her exquisite gown was made by one of the most famous dressmakers of the time, Madame Demorest. Astors and Vanderbilts competed to give the most elaborate gift. And President and Mrs. Lincoln themselves invited the newlyweds to honeymoon at the White House.
Their elaborate wedding at Grace Episcopal Church on February 10th, 1863, was the gift of their great friend (and showman), P.T. Barnum, who took credit for playing matchmaker to the pair. While Barnum refrained from selling tickets to the wedding itself, he had no problem selling tickets to the grand reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. The diminutive wedding party, which also included Vinnie’s even tinier sister, Minnie, had to perch on top of a piano in order to greet their 2,000 guests.
The country was simply enchanted by this miniature couple, apparently struck by Cupid’s dainty arrow; it was the perfect antidote to a nation weary of war and strife. For a few days, anyway, the entire nation could open the newspaper and not be confronted by casualty lists but, rather, flowery paeans to a true “Love in Miniature.”
A few years after the wedding, a strange phenomenon began to sweep the land—the “Tom Thumb Wedding.” Staged primarily at churches and schools, often as fundraisers, children would dress up in wedding finery and be “married” by a “minister.” While the popularity of these weddings seemed to peak prior to World War II, there are still Tom Thumb Weddings being performed to this day.
Even in America, it seems, the idea of a royal wedding, albeit a miniature one, never goes out of style.
P.T. Barnum was Vinnie’s great friend, and greater promoter. Known today mainly for the circus that still bears his name, Phineas Taylor Barnum was so much more than that during his lifetime. He was born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810 to a store keeper and his wife. Soon showing a talent for selling people things they had no idea they even wanted in the first place, Barnum was himself a shop keeper, real estate speculator, lottery runner and newspaper publisher, all before the age of twenty-five.
In 1835, he began his great career as a showman by purchasing the contract of an 80-year-old former slave named Joice Heth. He quickly decided to advertise her as the former nurse to George Washington, a woman over 160 years of age—and the gullible public bought it. While he never said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Barnum did exhibit a genius for understanding that the public wanted to be entertained, not lectured—a novel notion in an America still steeped in its puritanical origins, in the years prior to the Civil War.
In 1843 he heard of a diminutive young boy, only twenty-five inches high, in the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barnum visited the 5-year-old Charles Stratton and convinced the boy’s parents to hand the child over to his care. He then groomed him, taught him to sing, dance, act like a gentleman (even to take wine at dinner and smoke cigars), added a few years to his age, and began to exhibit the child as “12-year-old” General Tom Thumb. He took Stratton overseas to make his reputation; there he was feted by Queens and Kings—particularly the young Queen Victoria and her family—so that when he returned to the United States, he could truly be trumpeted as one of the first international celebrities. Stratton was still at the top of his fame in 1863, when he met, and quickly married, the equally diminutive Lavinia Warren, Barnum’s newest discovery.
Barnum went on to bring Jenny Lind, the great opera singer, to America, where she became the “Swedish Nightingale.” He also bought a rundown museum in New York, transforming it into Barnum’s American Museum—truly the first respectable entertainment palace in the United States, the Disney World of its time; a place where genteel ladies and farmers with their families and foreign visitors could all spend a happy few hours being entertained by Barnum’s many “curiosities,” entertainments, and exhibits. Among the many delights on exhibit were: Wax works, a live Beluga whale in what was America’s first aquarium, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears, a flea circus, dioramas, Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, the trunk of a tree beneath which Jesus’ disciples sat, the famous Feejee mermaid (actually the torso of a dead monkey sewn to the tail of a fish), and of course—General and Mrs. Tom Thumb.
Barnum made and lost several fortunes over the years, and never apologized for deceiving the public in the making of some of them, insisting always he was giving them what they really wanted to see. (His first autobiography, published in 1855, freely admitted to the Joice Heth hoax.) Many of his “curiosities” became his good friends; General Tom Thumb came out of an early retirement, in the 1850’s, to tour again in order to help Barnum come out of bankruptcy.
After the American Museum burned down a second time, Barnum turned to the circus, in 1871. In typical Barnum fashion, he took a struggling industry and reinvented it, partnering with several smaller, struggling circuses and eventually joining them together into one “Greatest Show on Earth,” the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. His was the first circus to travel by train.
Barnum dabbled in politics, was an ardent abolitionist, married twice, lived in palaces, traveled the world, wrote one of the most famous books on advertising, “The Art of Money-Getting,” which is just as relevant today as it was in 1880. When he was dying, in 1891, he gave a newspaper permission to print his obituary so that he might read it. He died a few days after it ran; his last words were, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”
His circus was performing there at the time.
Two wonderful websites depict P.T. Barnum and his world: The first is the website for the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT. The museum is currently undergoing an emergency restoration, as it was damaged in a tornado in the summer of 2010—ironically, the centennial of Barnum’s birth. Donations to help restore the exhibits—consisting of valuable memorabilia from the circus and Barnum’s most famous exhibits, including the Strattons—are welcome. And finally, there is an interactive website that depicts the wonders of the American Museum, in its heyday—The Lost Museum.