Selling The Swedish Nightingale

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Perhaps forty thousand persons greeted Jenny’s ship when it finally docked on Sunday, September 1, 1850. She and her entourage made their way through the adoring crowds to Barnum’s carriage. The showman himself leaped into the driver’s seat “as a legitimate advertisement,” he explained later. “My presence on the outside of the carriage aided those who filled windows and sidewalks along the whole route in coming to the conclusion that Jenny Lind had arrived!”

She had indeed. Enthusiastic throngs milled around the Irving House Hotel all night, cheering and calling her name. They cheered even louder when two hundred members of the Musical Fund Society, escorted by a company of firemen in red flannel shirts, joined the crowd and began a nightlong serenade.

Barnum was gratified by the turnout. He had not been entirely sure what size concert hall Jenny needed. Now he knew. He hired the largest in town, Castle Garden, in Battery Park. Hundreds followed Jenny’s carriage to and from rehearsals. New York merchants eagerly abetted Barnum’s grand design by rushing into print to advertise hastily renamed Jenny Lind products: everything from Jenny Lind cigars to Jenny Lind sewing stands, gloves, scarves, riding hats, perfume (unfortunately for Jenny, the idea of paid endorsements was still far in the future).

Then, with the concert just five days away, Barnum staged another event that raised an even greater journalistic furor than the Prize Song Competition—the Great Jenny Lind Opening Concert Ticket Auction.

It had required discreet stage managing. A few days before the auction, Barnum visited the office of his friend John N. Genin, a hatmaker, and offered him a golden opportunity: he would be the first man in America to buy a ticket to hear Jenny Lind sing. “Pay whatever you have to pay for the ticket,” Barnum told him, “and consider it an investment in the future.” Delighted, Genin agreed.

Barnum next visited a Dr. Brandreth, who made and widely advertised various patent medicines. “Buy the first Jenny Lind ticket at auction,” Barnum recalled himself saying, “and let every newspaper in America, in Europe, announce that Dr. Brandreth, Jr., the maker of the celebrated Brandreth pills, secured the first Jenny Lind ticket at $50 or $100 as the case may be.”

On the day of the great auction over three thousand people paid the admission fee of twelve and a half cents to enter Castle Garden. Among them were Genin’s bookkeeper and Brandreth’s cashier, each man’s secret instructions unsuspected by the other. Brandreth’s man opened at $25. Genin’s came back with $50. Other bidders dropped away at $225; so did Brandreth’s cashier. John N. Genin was the winner. And Barnum’s prediction that possession of the first ticket would make his fortune proved true. So widely had reports of the auction been circulated that visitors to New York thereafter regarded Genin’s shop as one of the town’s major tourist attractions and bought Genin hats as souvenirs for the folks back home.

(The auction would be repeated in several cities where Jenny appeared. In Boston the first ticket went for $625. It was craftily purchased by a singer named Ossian F. Dodge, whose concert career from that moment on took a turn for the better. The highest-priced auction ticket was sold for $650 to Colonel William Ross of Providence, Rhode Island. Having outflanked his rivals around the country, the colonel failed to attend the concert. He did not like music.)

Jenny Lind’s opening concert at Castle Garden—on September 11, 1850—was a landmark in the annals of the performing arts in America. Not even her frenetic advance publicity could make her performance an anticlimax. Seven thousand strong, the audience succumbed.

“Jenny Lind’s first concert is over,” the Tribune ’s music critic wrote that night, “and all doubts are at an end. She is the greatest singer we have ever heard and her success is all that was anticipated from her genius and her fame.”

Barnum later struck a commemorative medal of that wildly acclaimed event and grandly presented one to each businessman or banker who had turned him down in his quest for $187,500.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Over the next two months Jenny performed concerts in Philadelphia, Boston, and in Providence, Rhode Island—where Brown University officials were forced to give infatuated students a half-holiday and suspended the rule that forbade any form of entertainment on week nights.