Although Barnum featured a variety of acts and “human curiosities,” including giants, dwarves, magicians, albinos and exotic women at his American Museum in New York City as well as in his tours and traveling circus, Tom Thumb was one of Barnum’s smallest, yet most popular performers. Born Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) in Bridgeport, Conn., Tom Thumb was discovered by Barnum, a distant relative, around the age of 5. After learning how to sing, dance and impersonate famous people, Stratton went on his first tour of America alongside Barnum, which turned out to be a major success. The following year, Stratton journeyed to Europe, where he appeared twice before Queen Victoria, thus making a name for himself both nationally and internationally.
In 2004, Cowan’s handled a rare handbill advertising one of Tom Thumb’s engagements during his first trip to England in 1844. Featuring a depiction of the small star standing before Barnum and his parents, the broadside describes Tom Thumb, weighing only 15 pounds, as the “American Man in Miniature,” yet lies by saying he is 13-years-old, when in reality, he was only 6 at the time. This fine handbill brought $150 at auction, and comparable advertisements for Tom Thumb among other unique celebrities can bring between $50 and $200 at auction, making them affordable items for beginning collectors.
Photographs of Tom Thumb and fellow performers have frequently appeared at auction and in Internet sales over the years. Some of the most well-known photographs document the marriage of Tom Thumb to another dwarf by the name of Lavinia Warren in 1863, capturing the highly-publicized ceremony as well as the wedding party, which included Commodore Nutt, another mini Barnum performer, and Warren’s even smaller sister, Minnie. Barnum actually hired famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady to produce the photographs of the wedding to sell to the mass market. Some photos even feature facsimile signatures of the wedding party on the back. A beginning collector can purchase carte-de-visite photos of Tom Thumb’s wedding, as well as comparable images of Barnum’s miniature celebrities for between $25 and $50.
In June, Cowan’s is featuring an archive of Tom Thumb collectibles that once belonged to his personal valet, B.F. Sellers, and the highlights include Tom Thumb’s miniature topcoat, vest, pants, gloves, wool cap and fine leather boots, manufactured by the Queen of England’s boot makers. This rather petite, yet remarkable group, valued at $10,000-$15,000, may appeal to the more passionate Tom Thumb collector, but it is still quite a sight to behold for those interested in the history and stature of this 19th-century celebrity.
Although it might be difficult for you to get your hands on an item from his wardrobe, it might be less challenging to obtain photographs, broadsides and ephemera related to Tom Thumb plus other well-known miniature Barnum performers, such as Commodore Nutt, Admiral Dot and Major Atom, and with Barnum’s 200th birthday coming up on July 5, it would only be fitting to invest in these tiny pieces of history.
Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Research by Katie Landrigan.
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