Friday, April 9, 2010

In France

P. T. Barnum (1810–1891)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

In the mid-1840s P. T. Barnum embarked on his first European tour. After scouting Paris for prospective venues and visiting the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, he returned the next year with “General” Tom Thumb. In a June 1845 dispatch for the New York Atlas, he wrote, “We have now been in Paris for nearly two months, and Gen. Tom Thumb’s harvest is still increasing! The excitable Parisians talk of nothing but ‘General Tom Pouce, les tres jollie [sic] charmant enfant!’” Two months later, he wrote to his stateside associate Moses Kimball, exclaiming that France “is the most charming country” but complaining about the onerous tax assessments, which he had handled with “a touch of Yankee.” The following selection from his 1869 memoir Struggles and Triumphs describes in greater detail the story of Barnum’s tour de France: the mobs that greeted Tom Thumb, the audience before the royal family, and the “Yankee trick” he pulled on the French tax collectors.

I stopped at the Hotel Bedford, and securing an interpreter, began to make my arrangements. The first difficulty in the way was the government tax for exhibiting natural curiosities, which was no less than one fourth of the gross receipts, while theatres paid only eleven per cent. This tax was appropriated to the benefit of the city hospitals. Now, I knew from my experience in London, that my receipts would be so large as to make twenty-five per cent of them a far more serious tax than I thought I ought to pay to the French government, even for the benefit of the admirable hospitals of Paris. Accordingly, I went to the license bureau and had an interview with the chief. I told him I was anxious to bring a “dwarf” to Paris, but that the percentage to be paid for a license was so large as to deter me from bringing him; but letting the usual rule go, what should I give him in advance for a two months’ license?

“My dear sir,” he answered, “you had better not come at all; these things never draw, and you will do nothing, or so little that the percentage need not trouble you.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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