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Jefferson and Exhibitions
As an inquisitive inhabitant of the age of curiosity, Thomas Jefferson took advantage of abundant opportunities to gaze at something new or wonderful.
While the multiple wonders of art and nature are today assembled in large urban museums, in Jefferson's time there were no central institutions to house the variety of the world's marvels. Exotic beasts made solo appearances in city markets, paintings were viewed in artists' studios, and new inventions were put through their paces in back yards. Streets, fairgrounds, taverns, and private dwellings were the primary exhibition sites of the eighteenth century.
Jefferson's motives for attending exhibitions were principally scientific or aesthetic, always flavored with at least a dash of utility. The story of his attendance, in the company of his peers, at exhibitions of art, inventions, and objects of natural history is too long for these pages, which instead treat the shows at which he inevitably mingled with mere sensation seekers. One kind of display brought together the cultivated gentleman and the ignorant laborer, associated for a moment by their common curiosity. To all who could afford the price of admission, the display of living creatures was irresistible.
Jefferson, who pursued his education through life, seized every chance to illustrate his book learning with real images. Wild animals were tangible evidence of nature's variety in the exotic regions described in the works of geography, exploration, and natural history in his library. Many appear in his memorandum books:
1791, Philadelphia, "Pd. for seeing a lion 21 months old 11 1/2d."4
1792, Philadelphia, "Pd. seeing a small Seal .125."5
1797, Philadelphia, "Pd. seeing elephant .5."6
1817, Charlottesville, "Pd. seeing lions .25."7
1819, Charlottesville, "[S]eeing camels, lion, paca .50."8
Jefferson's sight of a tiger cost him two Spanish bits (later the equivalent of twenty-five cents), the standard entry fee of the day. The big cats of Asia and Africa were a considerably scarcer commodity in the colonies than in England — one 1773 London guidebook reported lions and tigers in every street — but when Jefferson reached the European continent in 1784, he found a plentiful supply of caged beasts. In both France and England he visited the royal menageries, whose dwindling collections disappointed their late-eighteenth-century visitors. At Versailles a respectable assemblage of birds but only a handful of exotic quadrupeds, including a rhinoceros, were confined outside an octagonal pavilion hung with animal paintings.
The center of attraction at the Tower of London was not Henry VIII's armor or the crown jewels but the wild animals, including its lions, who had furnished the word "lion" with its additional meaning of a celebrity or sight worth seeing. One London visitor, after visiting the Tower in the same year as Jefferson, included in her long condemnation of the menagerie a lament for the eagles bound to their perches by leather thongs. The savage creatures pacing their cages at both Versailles and the Tower later reappeared in Jefferson's assessment of their royal sponsors. He advised some travelling Americans to view the courts of Europe as they would "the tower of London or Menagerie of Versailles with their Lions, tygers, hyaenas and other beasts of prey, standing in the same relation to their fellows. ... under the most imposing exterior, they are the weakest and worst part of mankind."9
Although Jefferson probably saw the smaller sea mammals during his transatlantic crossings — he did see whales from the decks of the Ceres in 1784 — he paid at least twice to give them a closer inspection. The "phoca" he viewed in Paris elicited no comment, but it may have been a sea elephant, as a contemporary Paris visitor invoked the attributes of dogs, geese, leopards, lions, and eels in order to provide her journal with a proper description of the seal from the Straits of Magellan that she saw at the Saint-Laurent fair.
A week after his arrival in Philadelphia in 1797, after a three-year absence, Jefferson had only to walk around the corner from his lodgings to see an elephant that had been exhibited daily for several months. Perhaps he inspected its teeth, as his reading had left him in some doubt as to their form. Jefferson took exception to the European view that the American "mammoth" was an elephant, and their grinders were a key distinguishing feature. He was certain that the bones found in the Ohio salt licks belonged to "the largest of all terrestrial beings," not to the insignificant elephant.10
The enterprising itinerant showman who brought his animal troupe to Charlottesville in 1819 may have displayed the first and last paca, a large spotted South American rodent, seen in the town. Jefferson's intense interest in the natural productions of his own country led him to every available exhibition of both North and South American animals. The memorandum books record:
1768, Williamsburg, "Pd. for seeing an elk 7 1/2d."11
1769, Williamsburg, "Pd. for seeing a hog weighing more than 1050 lb. 1/3."12
1771, Charlottesville, "Pd. for seeing an Alligator 1/3."13
1790, New York, "Pd. for seeing Cougar from Paraguay 1/."14
1797, Philadelphia, "Pd. seeing elks .75."15
More than mere scientific curiosity inspired these visits — Jefferson was gathering evidence for his patriotic defense of the American continents. He could not remain silent after the Comte de Buffon proclaimed the degeneracy of animal life in the new world. To combat what he called this "very degrading" theory Jefferson enlisted a host of friends to provide him with the largest possible carcasses of American quadrupeds as well as "the heaviest weights of our animals ... from the mouse to the mammoth."17 When he could, he compiled his statistics through personal examination. Then, he broadcast from the pages of his Notes on the State of Virginia the weights of American animals in comparative tables that overwhelmed the European competition.
The elk, still abundant in eastern North America in Jefferson's time, was of particular interest to him because he believed, correctly, that it deserved the status of a uniquely American species. Buffon had lumped it with the European fallow deer, which caused one of Jefferson's weight-providers to exclaim, "They are almost as unlike as the Monkey and the Fox."18 In 1771 Jefferson expressed his desire to add a buck elk to his park at Monticello, "To be as it were Monarch of the wood."19 Although he probably never succeeded in acquiring one, he reported in the Notes on the State of Virginia that they "have been brought to us and tamed." The elk enshrined in that work was given by a "judicious person," perhaps Jefferson himself, the conjectural weight of 450 pounds.20
The cougar was the source of another dispute with the venerable Buffon, whom Jefferson thought "the best informed of any naturalist who has ever written."21 It was, therefore, all the more important that he be undeceived. Buffon had "confounded" the panther with the cougar, so Jefferson bought "an uncommonly large panther skin" from a Philadelphia hatter, took it to France, and handed it to the count. He later reported that he had convinced Buffon of the two separate species. In this case, however, Jefferson was mistaken. Today the cat known variously as panther, cougar, mountain lion, and puma, in North as well as South America, is considered a single species, Felis concolor.
Jefferson included five different sapajous in his "comparative view" of American quadrupeds. Which one of these South American capuchin monkeys he saw in Washington in 1804 is not known, but the high ticket price suggests a particularly rare one or perhaps an especially talented mimic of human eccentricities.
A surprising number of domestic animals were exhibited in this period, usually by virtue of their unusual proportions or their response to instruction. In the domestic category Jefferson singled out an animal that flourished on his own plantation, the pig. The enormous hog — whose exhibition in 1769 was evidently posthumous — eclipsed his own, which averaged only slightly over one hundred pounds at slaughter. In the pages of the Notes on the State of Virginia this Sussex County hog was outweighed only by an American horse, a Connecticut bullock, and a buffalo. It actually tipped the scales at over 1,200 pounds — the figure of 1,050 was reached after "the blood, bowels, and hair had been taken from him." Jefferson demonstrated his seriousness of purpose in viewing the "hog of 1050 lb. weight" by including it among the humans in his index to over sixty years of financial accounts.
As for animals of talent, there was a rich assortment awaiting the determined exhibition-goer, including the educated ass, a troupe of trained bees, and a platoon of birds who strutted through mock military maneuvers with miniature muskets under their left wings. Jefferson passed up these offerings and instead sought out another hog, paying in London in 1786 "for seeing the learned pig 1/."22 The fame of this black Yorkshire barrow, who had arrived at his showroom in Charing Cross in 1785, had already spread with help from the pen of Thomas Rowlandson and the wit of Samuel Johnson. Anglophobe Jefferson might have shaken his head at Robert Southey's statement that the pig was "in his day a far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton." By fetching typographical cards in response to questions from the audience, he could tell time, solve arithmetical problems, and read and write in several languages. Reports of his performance were sufficient to cause Dr. Johnson to observe: "The pigs are a race unjustly calumniated. Pig has, it seems, not been wanting to man, but man to pig. We do not allow time for his education, we kill him at a year old."23
Although human freaks were paraded in numbers throughout the streets and fairs of the time, only one appears in Jefferson's memorandum book: "Paid seeing Caleb Philips a dwarf .25 (note he weighs lb. now, and when born he weighed with the clothes in which he was swaddled 3 lb. He is years old."24 The newspaper reported that the boy's name was actually Calvin, he was seven years old, twenty-six inches high, and weighed twelve pounds.
Jefferson did, however, pay to see demonstrations of human talent, and seems to have been particularly fond of displays of equestrian ability:
1769, Williamsburg, "Pd. legerdemain man 2/6."25
1772, Williamsburg, "Pd . to see man ride 3. horses &c. 5/."26
1773, Williamsburg, "Pd. for ticket to Graham's lecture on the eye 5/9."27
1787, Paris, "[Pd. for]—Improvisatore 3f."28
1801, Washington, "Paid for a ticket to a lecture on astronomy 1.D."29
1823, Charlottesville, "The boys to see Ventriloquist 2.D."30
1826, Charlottesville, "Shew of horsemanship 4.50 + 50."31
Three years after viewing the conjuring tricks of a master of legerdemain, Jefferson paid to see trick rider Joseph Faulks, who brought his act to Williamsburg during the October Court. His "EXPLOITS in HORSEMANSHIP" included riding one, two, and three horses "in many different attitudes." While in London in 1786 Jefferson saw the performance of another master horseman, Philip Astley. This future impresario of the hippodrama had recently redecorated his Amphitheatre Riding House, giving it the more resplendent title, the Royal Grove. Besides the featured entertainment of trick riding by men and children, Astley's audience was treated to ballets, short comedies, Chinese shadows, and fireworks.
As the prestige of science continued to expand, the lecture became a popular form of mixing instruction and amusement, often taking on the characteristics of an exhibition. Many were just a set of conjurer's tricks, dressed up in scientific terminology and dignified as "experiments" or "demonstrations." When Jefferson paid to see James Graham's lecture on diseases of the eye and ear in 1773, he encountered one of the century's most famous quacks. After his modest beginnings as an "Oculist and Aurist" in the colonies, this Scottish "doctor" returned to Britain, where his miraculous cores, achieved through milk baths, ethereal balsams, and a "magnetic throne" activated by electrical currents, made his medical services much in demand.
If financial failure had not cut short Graham's spectacular rise, Jefferson could have paid two guineas to view the elaborate "Temple of Health" set in London in 1780 and dismantled in 1783. In apartments richly decorated with sculpture, paintings, and stained glass, perfumed by aromatic candles, and resonant with strains of music issuing from hidden apertures in the stairway, Graham exhibited ornate electrical machines, a temple dedicated to Apollo, sundry "Goddesses of Health" (one was the future Emma, Lady Hamilton), and the celebrated Celestial Bed. This extravagant contrivance promoted fertility by creating a circular magnetic field with nearly a ton of compound magnets. Its occupants paid £50 for a night's rest within its scented silken sheets.
The astronomical lecturer Jefferson heard while awaiting the beginning of presidential balloting in 1801 probably offered more serious instruction, but astronomy, too, was a growing field for popularizers. The addition of striking mechanical devices, like Adam Walker's twenty-foot-high luminous orrery, or planetarium, guaranteed large audiences. In London in 1786 Jefferson had seen a demonstration of another of the ingenious Walker's inventions and immediately ordered one — the celestina, an apparatus that gave a sustained tone to the harpsichord.
The Italian improvisatore Jefferson saw in Paris required no technological props. The Chevalier Baldinotti, given a subject by someone in the audience, burst into impromptu Italian verse. Tobias Smollett wrote of another practitioner: "He will, at a minute's warning, recite two or three hundred verses, well turned, and well adapted, and generally mingled with an elegant compliment to the company. The Italians are so fond of poetry, that many of them have the best part of Ariosto, Tasso and Petrarch, by heart; and these are the great sources from which the Improvisatori draw their rhimes, cadence, and turns of expression."
The last exhibitions of living creatures in Jefferson's memorandum book were part of his role as a grandfather. While he did not accompany his grandsons to see the ventriloquist, he does seem to have joined his family for a last outing on June 12, 1826. The display of horsemanship was probably the main attraction for him, but apparently an entire travelling circus had arrived in Charlottesville. Thus, Jefferson's journey of continual discovery closed with a summary of all the types of living creatures he had seen on exhibit in his past: humans both unusual and talented, animals both tamed and wild.
- Lucia C. Stanton, Monticello Keepsake, November 7, 1986.
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- 9. Jefferson’s Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe, June 19, 1788, in PTJ, 13:269-70. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 10. Notes, ed. Peden, 47. The 1832 edition is available online. See Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 44.
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- 17. Jefferson to Thomas Walker, September 25, 1783, in PTJ, 6:340. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 18. Archibald Cary to Jefferson, October 12, 1783, in PTJ, 6:344. Transcription available at Founders Online.
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- 21. Notes, ed. Peden, 55. See Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 56.
- 22. MB, 1:614. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 23. Samuel Johnson, "'Sir,' said Dr. Johnson—": Some Sayings Arranged by H.C. Biron: With Introduction (London: Duckworth and Co., 1911), 201.
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