By Joe Craig, Park Volunteer
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”-Carl Sagan
The circus ain’t comin’ to town no more.
A recent issue of Time Magazine announced that, the “Greatest Show on Earth”, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus is going out of business. For more than 140 years their death-defying acts, exotic animals and antics of clowns have awed, thrilled and amused countless people, but after May 2017, it will all be but a memory.
Why should something so traditional and part of America’s landscape go belly up? Was it the pressures of animal rights activists who managed to coax (or coerce) RBB&B to stop having elephants in its shows? Did sequins suddenly cost too much? Did the clowns unionize?
According to the article it was a lack of wonderment on the part of the audiences.
Yes, audiences are far more sophisticated today than in the past, linked as we have been to the greater world, beginning with television then later, computers and the internet. With the click of a mouse or touch of a screen, what were once exotic animals and people are right before your eyes. (“Okay, now I see what a camel is. Who needs to stand on line to see that? I’m going back to killing zombies.”)
By contrast, the world was a much vaster, more mysterious place for people in the early modern period. Many people had spent their entire lives but a few miles from their birthplace. Their horizons were at best encompassed by a town or two, so the glimpse of anything or anyone from another continent was something wondrous to behold.
No matter how small the compass of one’s life, “wonders” were very much part of the world, some of which were outright frightening. Comets were portents of great and awe-filling events, Deformed infants “monstrous births” (from the Latin monstro, to show) and violent weather events were signs of Divine Anger and Wrath. Contagious diseases could appear out of the blue to wipe out entire families. It was a tough old world to put it mildly.
The reason why various phenomena happened at all lacked what we’d call scientific explanations. Scientific laws familiar to people in the present were certainly in effect, but being unknown or at the very least poorly understood, explanations for phenomena were often rooted in beliefs in what we’d call magic.
Not surprisingly there was a level of credulity on practically every level of society that seems to beg for modern condescension. Who, today, can really believe that base metals could be transmuted (transformed) into gold? Or an aged neighbor could have the powers to wreak havoc on you, your worldly goods and household? Yet in many cases, there seemed to be no other explanation that Something Happened.
Enter the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment whose expressed mission in life was to expunge “superstition”. Those individuals who had the leisure (and required cash) could study the Wide World better. Medieval Scholasticism gradually gave way to more empirical observations, inquires and collecting of rarities called, appropriately, “curiosities”. The “cabinets of curiosities” of these collectors were truly eclectic gatherings of to use the scientific phrase stuff and things.
What did they collect? It might be easier to ask what they didn’t collect. Rarities of nature were front and center. Fossil shells (obviously from the Biblical Flood), went side by side with attractive minerals. Medieval or Roman coins would be next to “curiously wrought” items of all sorts. Antique objects found their way into the mix. Feathers, claws and other disjecta membra of animals from the far ends of the earth made for exciting additions. Some collections were made available to the (paying) public.
One such collection could be found at “Dr. Saltero’s Coffee-House in Chelsea [London].” The catalogue of the many curios available for viewing sounds more like a flea market than an organized collection of wonders. The public could feast their eyes upon “The model of our Blessed Saviour’s sepluchre at Jerusalem” with “An horizontal sun-dial” and “A Queen Anne’s Farthing on a tobacco stopper”. In the same “Glass-Case” one could find “Saints, &c. carved in beads of cherry-stones” cheek by jowl with “The head of the bull fly, exceedingly rare” and “The stag fly, very curious”. It was a salmagundi for the eyes, the rare (“A pair of dice used by the knights templars”), the exotic (“A pack of Chinese cards”), the titillating (“A pair of garters from South Carolina”), the bizarre (“A piece of Q. Catherine’s skin”), the reverent (“A painted ribband from Jerusalem, with which our Saviour was tied to the pillar when scourged, with a motto”) and patriotic (“An enamel of King Charles II, in miniature”), among many other items.
All that, and we haven’t even gotten to the second “Glass-Case”! Small wonder that even the serious-minded might stop in: Sir Isaac Newton, Hans Sloan (whose own eclectic collections were the foundation of the British Museum) and Benjamin Franklin (maybe not always as serious-minded as Sir Isaac) were known to have visited the Coffee House-cum-Museum.
Saltero seems to have been something of a showman and a doggerel advertisement was attributed to him:
“Monsters of all sorts here are seen,
Strange things in Nature, as they grew so, Some relics of the Sheba Queen, And fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe. Knick-Knacks, too, dangle round the wall,
Some in glass cases, some on the shelf, But what’s the rarest sight of all?
YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT SHOWS HIMSELF.”
Such venues were not confined to Merrie Olde England. The Anatomy Hall at the University of Leyden offered an eclectic mix of “scientific” displays and curiosities. A Catalogue Of all the chiefest RARITIES In the Publick ANATOMIE HALL, Of the University of Leyden  gives a tour of the (sometimes grisly) displays. Apparently there were plenty of bones to be had; “sceletons” of animals, familiar and exotic were combined with those of a “pirat” [sic], “A Sceleton of a Woman 17 Yeares old who murthered her son” and “The Sceleton of a Gardener, that hang’d himself”. Alongside the anatomical curiosities, there were plenty of items best categorized as “miscellaneous”: “An Ungarian [sic] pair of breeches”, “Somme monstrous bones” and “A great Knife, taken from a Rioting fellow” are but a small selection.
By contrast Rackstrow’s Museum on Fleet Street in London had a bit more focus in its collections of figures and anatomical displays. Showmanship was certainly a major factor, witness the 1791 catalogue which boasted of “A large and very valuable Collection of MOST CURIOUS ANATOMICAL FIGURES AND REAL PREPARATIONS; ALSO FIGURES RESEMBLING LIFE; WITH A GREAT VARIETY OF Natural and Artificial Curiosities”.
The catalogue goes on to describe breathlessly the wonders to be seen in tones that circus promoters would someday emulate: “The Astonishing and Compleat SKELETON of a full-sized SPERMA-CETI WHALE, being the real bones joined together; nearly seventy feet in length. The Head, or Skull alone measures sixteen feet, and is computed to weigh THREE TONS…”; “The real SKULL of the Hippopotamus, or River-Horse, also called the Sea-Horse, and in the Holy Scripture, the Behemoth; from the River Nile in Egypt”; “A Collection of REPTILES highly preserved in SPIRITS, including VIPERS, SNAKES, FROGS, TOADS; particularly fine Specimens of SURINAM-TOADS, with their Young bursting into Birth through the whole Surface of their BACKS”.
Visitors wended their way through displays including “A grand Figure of His Late Majesty GEORGE the Second, In His Parliament Robes, coloured to nature” and “A real Ancient MUMMY, in the original case…near four thousand years”. There were also wax figures, stuffed animals, “A Capital Double Convex LENS, or BURNING GLASS” and “A very Powerful Artificial MAGNET”, to boot.
One display showed the less pleasant side of the Enlightenment: incipient racism: “A Series of Skulls, in which the GRADATION from the HUMAN SPECIES to that of the BRUTE is very evident, consisting of the Skull of an European or WHITE person; That of a MULATTO; and That of an African NEGRO with Those of APES, MONKETS, BABOONS, &c.”
Visitors entering the Fifth Room encountered “ANATOMICAL FIGURES and REAL PREPARATIONS”. The figures in question were “moulded and coloured to Nature; many of them [cast from] Women who have died undelivered”. Nearby were “real Ova [fetuses] from Women who have miscarried, beautifully preserved in spirits”. Further along could be found “A very fine Figure moulded to a man, representing uncoloured the whole of the External Musacles”, “A Cast of the Bowels”, “An extraordinary large and curious Gall-stone”,“ A cast of the Human Stomach.Ditto of the Liver. Ditto of the Spleen”and “the real Brains of a Man with the Blood-vessels injected, taken whole out of the Skull; and preserved in spirits”. The displays continued showing enough body parts to keep Victor Frankenstein in business for years.
It’s very evident that these cabinets of curiosity and early museums were an admixture of learning and outright huskerterism. It’s not hard to imagine the hoi poloi rubbing elbows with the more educated at these venues: one drawn by the purple prose of broadsides and the other by the “thirst for learning”. Maybe the natural philosphers regarded the associated ballyhoo as means to bring the Unwashed toward knowledge.
Did the Enlightenment end the ability for humans to wonder? Maybe. The motivating spirit of the Enlightenment was to discover, to find out, to really know. However, the ideal natural philosopher was not given to enthusiasm, a term interchangeable at the time with religious fanaticism and superstition. Discovery was to be done carefully, soberly and detached. (That detachment was not expected of those less educated: arguably in a world where You Knew Your Place, keeping the masses awed by the sciences rather than “superstition” was not an undesirable end.) Wonder was straight-waistcoated.
Perhaps the real decline for wonder comes from simple overkill. Through the 18th century and beyond, there have been no lack of wonders. The sheer volume and anticipation of more discoveries have raised the bar for anyone to make an impact on the public. (Hey, if Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus can’t meet audience expectations, Dr. Saltero’s Coffee House wouldn’t even be in the running.) People have become jaded because “wonders” have become commonplace.
But although science has taken the mystery out of many things comets, for instance are just “dirty snowballs”, after all there is still remains the very human capacity for wonder. That sense of wonder still makes us search for answers, and that is a very Enlightenment ideal.