The posters and prints on the wall are advertisements for, or notices about, the principal sites of popular public entertainment in early America: taverns, pleasure gardens, circuses, and theaters. In the case are books that were aids to private entertainment: rules for games, joke books, dream books, song books, a humorous dialogue that is not as funny as it seems to be, and a book that was itself a toy. You might expect to find more children’s books in this case, but in fact most 18th-century American children’s books were not much fun. Instead they were devoted to moral and religious instruction.
Lailson’s Circus. Near the former Circus — Petersburg. [Petersburg, Va.: W. Prentis, 1797].
By the end of the 18th century, circus performances were wildly popular, drawing audience members and performers of all sorts. Liminal spaces, circuses comprised arenas in which it was popularly understood that social, class, and gender boundaries could be transgressed, if only temporarily. Yet the very freedoms allowed and encouraged by such popular entertainments provoked harsh objections by the religious, who believed these places encouraged licentiousness and distracted people from observing their faith. Based in Philadelphia, Philip Lailson’s famous equestrian show traveled all over the country, as is evident by this broadside advertisement for a Virginia performance. Lailson’s, like other circuses, offered people a break from everyday life and a chance to see things they usually did not, including exotic animals, clowns, and wonderful feats performed by skilled women and children.
New-York, November 22, 1791. Theatre. By the Old American Company. [New York, 1791].
All English colonies proscribed theater until the mid-18th century. Religious reformers believed that plays encouraged licentiousness, promoted effeminacy and homosexuality among men, encouraged treachery and hypocrisy (as acting was a form of lying), competed with religious worship, and often challenged religious doctrine. The country’s first theatrical production took place in 1752 when the American Company (from Great Britain) performed The Merchant of Venice in Virginia. Interest in theater grew steadily throughout the century in all regions except New England, where performances continued to be banned until 1792, when the anti-theater law of 1767 was repealed after much debate and hostility. Even then, religious purists clung to their austere visions of proper recreations and remained firmly and vocally opposed to these controversial entertainments. Those New Englanders who did not worry about the supposed deleterious effects of theater on their morality often traveled to performances in nearby cities, such as to the American Company’s 1791 New York show of an Elizabethan play, John Fletcher’s The Chances, announced in this broadside.
Duties of Innkeepers, &c. [Boston, ca. 1800].
Governments in the early Republic were highly ambivalent about places such as inns and taverns, which brought together men and women of all sorts and provided not only food and intoxicating beverages, but also a place to bed for the night. In their favor, taverns provided an important revenue source from their annual license fees. Yet their very nature also meant that they could easily become places of social disorder. Digests of current legislation such as this were products of authority– top-down attempts to control the public– who in this case included both proprietors and their customers. In reality, however, these documents, by enumerating such a wide range of proscribed activities – gambling, dancing, card-playing, dice-throwing, drunkenness, and reveling – reveal the degree to which people flouted the law by actually engaging in them.
George and Robert Gray. Sir, the Subscribers have spared no expence or attention to render to accommodations . . . at Gray’s Ferry, as complete as possible. [Philadelphia, 1789].
George and Robert Gray. We hope the Gentlemen will not be displeased . . . to pay the waiters. [Philadelphia: James & Johnson, 1790?]
James Trenchard after Charles Willson Peale. An East View of Gray’s Ferry, on the River Schuylkill. Engraving in Columbian Magazine, August, 1787.
Charles Willson Peale, delin., James Trenchard, sculpt. An East View of Gray’s Ferry, near Philadelphia; with the Triumphal Arches, &c. erected for the Reception of General Washington, April 20th, 1789. From the Columbian Magazine. May, 1789.
George and Robert Gray owned a bridge and inn on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, which served as the southern gateway to Philadelphia and was accessible by water and land. Well-known as a fashionable resort, Gray’s Ferry and Gardens provided an idyllic retreat for those seeking to escape the stresses of urban life, especially during the summer months. The proprietors strived to make the place an attractive getaway, providing refreshments such as alcohol and ice cream, amusements such as nighttime illuminations and music, and conviviality (including, some suggested, prostitutes). Surviving printed ephemera records the Grays’ desire to create the best possible experience for their customers by supplying fishing gear and a wagon shuttle (equipped with good suspension) in addition to table service and a full menu. Admission was free, but meals were not, as waiters discreetly reminded patrons with cards such as the one shown here. The Grays’ establishment proved more successful than they imagined. One contemporary visitor described the resort as “having the most picturesque location in the world,” aided, to be sure, by the ten gardener’s assistants working on site. Another visitor wrote of being “entertained with scenes romantic and delightful beyond the power of description,” noting, among other wonders, the exotic orange and lemon trees growing in the greenhouse, grottoes “wrought out of the sides of ledges of rocks,” and a waterfall with a 70-foot drop. The various amenities at Gray’s Ferry attracted not only locals but also important dignitaries. When George and Martha Washington visited in 1789, the place was done up “in a style of neat simplicity,” with a 25-foot-high liberty pole and a triumphal arch festooned with laurel branches, illustrated in the accompanying engraving. (Martha, for her part, “partook of an elegant cold collation” while there.)
Edmond Hoyle. Hoyle’s Games Improved. Boston: William Spotswood, 1796.
Early Americans considered card-playing a respectable activity— as long as it occurred outside of taverns and did not involve gambling. Not only did card games encourage arithmetic skills, but they also required little equipment, relieved boredom, and were fun, to boot. Different card games were associated with different classes of people. Whist, for example, appealed to ministers, merchants, college students, and professionals. Requiring quiet and contemplation, it was the one card game that elite women played as well. Hoyle’s, first published in London in 1743, codified the rules of whist and many other games, including backgammon, chess, tennis, and billiards. This American edition shows that card-playing was not wholly set apart from the world of gambling. One of its improvements was to clarify scoring, so essential at all Games, upon which any considerable sums are wagered.
Tom Paine’s Jests; Being an Entirely New and Select Collection of Patriotic Bon Mots, Repartees, Anecdotes. . . Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1796.
The Merry Fellow’s Companion; or American Jest Book. Harrisburgh: Printed by John Wyeth for Mathew Carey, Philadelphia, 1797.
Joke books were highly topical and figured as an important element in tavern culture, which encouraged patrons to be their own entertainment. Jokes simultaneously expressed and subverted existing hierarchies by putting voice to oppositional ideas. An example is this joke from The Merry Fellow’s Companion: A countryman passing along the Strand, saw a coach overturned, and asking what the matter was, he was told, that three or four members of parliament were overturned in a coach. Oh said he, there let them be, my father always advised me not to meddle with state affairs. Many of these joke forms are familiar to us today, involving puns and plays on words. From Tom Paine’s Jests comes this groaner: His Grace of Richmond being asked, why he ordered a captain’s guard to mount in the kitchen? replied, that he wished to accustom the captains of militia to stand fire.
[Jonathan Sewall]. A Cure for the Spleen or Amusement for a Winter’s Evening. [Boston], 1775.
Masquerading as a jolly play or a humorous dialogue, this is actually a political pamphlet written by an upper-class Boston Tory on the eve of the Revolution. Even its political stance is sly, since Patriot arguments are also advanced, but in the mouths of the stupid characters, Puff the assemblyman and Fillpot the innkeeper. It was reprinted in New York by the Tory James Rivington. This is an example of how popular cultural forms were often appropriated by the elite to better control what Tom Paine called “The Swinish Multitude.”
Benjamin Sands. [Metamorphosis]. [Philadelphia, ca. 1790.]
Folding the flaps of this simple yet ingeniously designed metamorphosis transformed its illustrations and revealed new parts of the verse. Meant for the amusement of children, it is a perfect example of what kinds of activities youth in the late 18th century were allowed to enjoy. Although toys were still quite rare – a fortunate boy might own one wooden top and a girl a single hand-made doll – children regularly found amusement in didactic items, including primers and metamorphoses.
Marchant, John. Amusements for the Young. Consisting of a Collection of Songs. Second edition, Boston: G. Rogers and J. Edwards, 1752.
This book, the only known copy, is one of the first songsters printed in this country; the first edition was printed in London. The first page of the first part, “Songs for Little Misses,” was inscribed by a child named Sally Foster. Her brother Timothy wrote his name in the second part, “Songs for Young Masters.” The worn paper and the hand-sewn repairs show how much daily use this little book saw, especially shared by siblings. The pin holding the middle pages together was inserted, perhaps by Sally, right next to the song “Miss and her Pins.”
Miss Ashmore. The New Song-Book: Being Miss Ashmore’s Favourite Collection of Songs. Boston: W. M’Alpine, 1771.
The Theatrical Songster: Or Amusing Companion. Boston: J. White, 1797.
Spicer’s Pocket Companion. [Northampton, ca. 1799].
By the mid-18th century Puritans had relaxed their strictures against any singing except religious hymns, and people considered singing of all kinds an important leisure activity. Songsters, collections of secular song lyrics, supplied novel words to familiar tunes, enabling people to sing new songs without necessarily having to supply the music. The number of songsters still in existence is only a fraction of what was actually produced. They were produced cheaply and in great numbers, often sold by itinerant peddlers for a few cents each. Rather than placing them on bookshelves to be admired, people considered songsters utilitarian objects and used them daily, as the condition of some of these examples attests. In addition, because songsters were often organized around popular themes and current events, people simply discarded companion songsters when their songs were no longer fashionable. The New Song-Book and Spicer’s Pocket Companion are unique copies, and only three copies of The Theatrical Songster are known to exist.
The Complete fortune teller: or, An infallible guide to the hidden decrees of fate; being a new and regular system for fore-telling future events, by astrology, phisiognomy, palmistry, moles, cards, dreams.U. S., ca. 1790.
The Universal interpreter of dreams and visions. … Shewing the signification of all manner of dreams, alphabetically arranged. According to Aristotle, Artimedorus, Lord Bacon, [etc.].Baltimore: Keatinge’s Book-Store, 1795.
Ibrahim Ali Mahomed Hafez.The Oneirocritic: being a treatise on the art of foretelling future events, by dreams, moles, cards, the signs of the zodiac and the planets.New York: N. Ogden, ca. 1790.
Dream books typically told you how to predict the future or read a person’s character in a variety of ways, such as by the interpretation of dreams, by astrological signs, and by the shape and placement of moles on the body. These books often claimed to impart wisdom of the ancients (The Universal Interpreter) or from exotic lands (The Oneirocritic). Dozens of dream books were published in early America, but most were read to pieces. Two of these are the only copies known.
Erra Pater. The Book of Knowledge: treating of the wisdom of the ancients.Hartford: N. Patten, 1793; and another edition, Worcester: I. Thomas, Jr., .
This peculiar book had its beginning as a perpetual almanac in England in 1540; by the time it came to America it had become a compendium of folk wisdom. It was first printed in America in 1767 by Zechariah Fowle, the printer of the first American Aristotle’s Masterpiece (see the X-Rated section of this exhibition), a book it resembles in its claim to preserve ancient secrets. Erra Pater was another fictitious exotic sage, a “Jew doctor of astronomy and physic.” The book has four parts: an explanation of the relationship of zodiac signs to the parts of the body (illustrated by a woodcut in every almanac but never explained); a treatise on the four humors of the human body with folk medicine recipes; a section on fortune telling by physiognomy, moles, palmistry, and dreams; and a “Farmer’s Calendar” with lore about weather, farming, and the care of animals. It was reprinted 18 times before 1801, so it must have provided information deemed important by ordinary people.