Today, the Bridgeport Connecticut Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers when the newly combined circus, Barnum and London, debuted in Madison Square Garden 136 years ago.
From The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, Including His Golden Rules for Money-making, by Phineas Taylor Barnum, published in 1888:
The Barnum & London Circus opened in New York March 18, 1881, heralded by a torchlight procession through the city on Saturday night, March 16th, which was witnessed by more than half a million of people and pronounced the most brilliant display ever seen in America.
A New York paper thus described it:
“The street parade Saturday night was the grandest pageant ever witnessed in our streets, and fully met the anticipations of the thousands of spectators thronging the entire route.
“The whole equipment and display was magnificent, without a single weak feature to mar the general effect.
“The golden chariots, triumphal and tableau cars were more numerous, more ponderous, more elaborate and gorgeous in finish than any other establishment has brought here; the cages of wild animals were more numerous than usual, many of them were also open, and their trainers rode through the streets in the cages of lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas and monster serpents.
“There were cars drawn by teams of elephants, camels, dromedaries, zebras, elk, deer and ponies. And there appeared in the grand cavalcade three hundred and thirty -eight horses, twenty elephants, fourteen camels, jet black dromedaries, a large number of ponies, zebras, trained oxen, etc., also three hundred and seventy men and women.
“The cavalry of all nations was represented in the various uniforms worn, mounted upon superb chargers, and the costumes throughout were brilliant and beautiful.
“Music was furnished by four brass bands (one composed of genuine Indians), a caliope, a fine chime of bells, a steam organ, a squad of Scotch bag-pipers, and a company of genuine plantation negro jubilee singers.”
Electric and calcium lights illuminated the whole.
Windows were sold in New York, along Broadway, for five dollars, eight dollars and ten dollars, from which to view the pageant.
So certain were we that this great street pageant and the marvelous combination of novelties to be produced throughout the season, would totally eclipse any former show enterprise, that on Saturday, March 26th, we brought, in drawing-room cars, from Washington, D. C., and Boston, and all the principal cities on those routes, the editors of all the leading papers.
These gentlemen, nearly one hundred in number, witnessed the torchlight procession Saturday night, and our opening performance at the Madison Square Garden Monday night, March 28th.
They were lodged at hotels at our expense, and by us returned to their homes on Tuesday; a very costly piece of advertising, which yet yielded us a magnificent return in the enthusiastic editorial endorsements of so many papers of good standing, whose representatives had seen our show and exclaimed as did the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, “The half was not told me.”
The following extract from the New York Herald of March 29th will give some idea of the variety and excellence of our attractions for 1881:
Madison Square Garden— Barnum’s Circus And Show.
“The management at Madison Square Garden have redeemed their promise to give the public one of the best arenic exhibitions in connection with a menagerie that ever has been witnessed in New York.
“Long before the doors were opened they were besieged by anxious hundreds, and at a quarter past eight o’clock there was scarcely a seat to be obtained in the vast edifice.
“It was stated by one of the proprietors that about nine thousand persons were present, and fully three thousand who could not be accommodated were refused admission.
“The spectacle can therefore be better imagined than described.
“Indeed it was worth the price of admission alone to see the immense crowd and note the intense interest exhibited by all classes present, from the representatives of wealth and fashion, who were there in large numbers, to the little arabs to whom a circus is a paradise.
“The arrangements for the convenience of the audience were in every way complete.
“Each individual was provided with a chair, so that all crowding was avoided, while an ample supply of ushers promptly and without confusion conducted the holders of tickets to their respective places.
“Everything was new and clean, from the costumes to the sawdust.
“No bad flavors disturbed the nostrils; electric lights made the auditorium as bright as day; the ventilation was good and a strong force of police were present to preserve order had their services been required.
“The only drawback to the performance was that the spectator was compelled to receive more than his money’s-worth; in other words, that while his head was turned in one direction he felt that he was losing something good in another.
“Three rings were provided, marked on the programs as Circle No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3; the equestrianism taking place in the two outer rings and the central space being reserved more especially for what are technically known as ‘ground acts.’
“The display began with the usual pageant, in which a vast number of rich dresses and handsome animals were exhibited, after which there was a general introduction of the most notable curiosities, including General Tom Thumb and lady, Chang, the Chinese giant, the bearded woman, the American baby elephant, giant horse, ox, a pair of giraffes broken to harness, and other features.
“Six common plow oxen were next shown, after which followed extraordinary performances on horseback, gymnastic and athletic exercises, juggling, wire-rope walking, trapeze-flying and other attractions ‘too numerous to mention.’
“Among the most interesting portions of the performance were the military drill and other feats by twenty trained elephants, the balancing by a Japanese family and the extraordinary jumping of the group of leapers who ended the program.
“The clowns were exceptionally good and one or two quite original.
“Altogether the show is well worth seeing.”
Very early in the traveling season of 1881, we enlarged our already immense tents three different times, and yet so great was the multitude that attended our exhibitions — many coming on excursion trains twenty, thirty and even fifty miles — that at half the towns we visited we were unable to accommodate all who came, and we turned away thousands for want of room.
In every town we were patronized by the elite, and frequently the public and private schools, as well as manufactories, were closed on “Barnum Day,” school committees and teachers recognizing that children would learn more of natural history by one visit to our menagerie than they could acquire by months of reading.
In Washington President Garfield told me he always attended my shows, and when Secretary Blaine said, “Well, Barnum! all the children in America are anxious to see your show,” the president smilingly added, “Yes! Mr. Barnum is the Kris Kringle of America.”
The Bridgeport Connecticut Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of “some funny things at Barnum’s,” circa 1888.