America's early wanderers: an army of entrepreneurs hits the road

On Maryland History

November 05, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

MR. DUMM had a challenge for those Baltimore gentlemen "professing to be adept in the art of pugilism." They were welcome to come to 10 North Gay St. and face Dumm in "a trial of skill." For those who lacked boxing expertise, Dumm was prepared to give practical demonstrations. His ads in The Sun in early September 1839, said he was considering opening a school to teach the arts of pugilism.

We don't know if Mr. Dumm, no first name given, stayed or moved on to another city, rejoining the countless itinerants on the highways of America. There was an army of the rootless out on the roads in the early decades of the last century. Foreign travelers noted, with some disbelief, the numbers of peddlers and medicine men, tinkers and preachers, showmen and artists who were constantly moving from town to town. Some filled real needs; most were exploiting novelties or providing entertainment to young America.

James Guild of Vermont gave up the confined life of a Vermont farmer in 1821 to try the road. First he was a peddler of combs, needles, buttons, thread and beads. When that enterprise failed, he became a wandering tinker, repairing pots, pans and spoons. For more excitement, he worked on a traveling exhibit of bisons, played a tambourine in a minstrel show and became skilled as a "profile cutter" of silhouette portraits. Meeting with a traveling painter, he learned the basics of miniature portrait painting which he combined with teaching penmanship during travels that took him from New York and Ohio to South Carolina.

Few had Guild's talents. Most were sellers or peddlers -- who sold everything from kitchen ware, books on romance, hats, even perfumes -- and reached into the dusty back roads to a population that still largely lived on farms. Most travelers slept in their wagons or by their campsites. It was only the successful who could afford to stay in a roadside tavern or a city hotel.

A Mr. Goodwane, sounded successful enough, advertising in the Gazette in 1832 that he was "the late president of the Royal Writing Academy, London" and promising to transform Baltimore scribblers into "beautiful finished writers" in five easy lessons. Goodwane claimed he had helped thousands in New York and Philadelphia. For those with "tremulous" hands, Goodwane had a solution, something called the Bon-side, his own invention.

Just for the fun of it, a Mr. Nichols, proposed to put on a show of "ventriloquism" for a few evenings at the Baltimore Museum in 1832. For a mere 25 cents, the usual museum fee, Nichols was going to demonstrate a series of feats others could not match. He would show eight voices at once. And, "he will throw his voice into the body of any gentleman present, and seemingly hold a familiar conversation with him."

The real big shows were circuses and extravaganzas like the one put on by the balloonist, Charles F. Durant. In 1833, it cost Baltimoreans one whole dollar to see his show. But it was an all-day affair with a large military band playing as his balloon was filled with 10,000 feet of hydrogen gas and his gondola attached; finally he ascended over the city.

Before P. T. Barnum started his long career in 1836, with one of the largest traveling shows in the country, smaller circuses and menageries showed Americans the exotic animals of the world. There were exhibits of lions, elephants, monkeys, giant snakes and even one show included a stuffed whale on a wagon. Some of the more successful small shows showed off freakish creatures, like the two-headed calf, or simply showed horrors, like the decapitated head of a French criminal that floated in a large, glass jar of alcohol. The head was in the Baltimore Museum, behind a curtain that a visitor could flip back for a look or just pass by.

Over the July 4 holidays in 1832, J. E. Walker, the museum's manager, was proud to offer a special showing of "two living condors," among the largest of all birds. The advertisement for the show said that a condor could carry away a full-grown sheep or even "a boy of 10 to 12 years old." It added that with aid, the bird could even lift a small elephant. But Walker qualified the claim within a parenthesis: "(How far this is correct I know not.)"

One of the museum's longer-running exhibits was something Walker described as an "anatomical cabinet, the best in the United States." It stayed for months. "The subjects are chiefly of wax, and are anatomically correct. They will be found of great importance to the scientific generally." This was an extra exhibition that included 55 subjects. The cost was double the usual entry fee -- 50 cents. And there was apparently something risque about the show for it was not recommended for couples. The hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. were reserved strictly for ladies. Gentlemen could ogle the specimens in late afternoon and evening.

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