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"Have you seen the Nightingale?": The Triumphant American Tour of Jenny Lind

Jenny Lind portemonnaie Oil on metal

Jenny Lind portemonnaie

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Lucy Ann (Lane) Norcross, the wife of prominent Boston merchant (and future mayor) Otis Norcross, purchased this portemonnaie (or change purse) after hearing Jenny Lind sing in Boston in 1850. By an unknown maker, the purse was just one of many Jenny Lind mementos available during her American tour.

P.T. Barnum engages the Nightingale

Johanna Maria Lind was born on 6 October 1820 in Stockholm, Sweden. "Jenny," as she was later known, first sang in public at age 10 and by the 1840s, she had become a popular and widely sought-after performer on the European opera stage. In addition to her talent, Jenny was also well known for her charitable endeavors—over the course of her career, she gave numerous benefit performances for organizations large and small.

Although he had never heard her sing a note, renowned showman and entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum was never one to miss an opportunity. In 1849, aware of the sensation Jenny Lind’s singing and charitable endeavors had caused on the continent, Barnum resolved to bring her to America. Although she had received previous offers to perform here, Jenny is said to have confessed that she accepted Barnum’s offer because his stationery featured an image of Iranistan, his palatial estate in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that had thoroughly captured her imagination. Their original contract called for 150 concerts over the course of 12-18 months, in addition to however many charitable concerts Jenny wanted to perform—terms were also laid out should either party decide to end the tour early. Barnum would pay for first class travel and lodgings for Jenny and her fellow performers and authorized his agent to offer her up to $1000 per concert.

Once Jenny had signed the contract, Barnum’s well-oiled publicity machine began to hum, introducing Jenny to an American public which (like Barnum himself) knew little or nothing of her. To stoke enthusiasm about the tour, Barnum announced a songwriting contest—the winner’s verses would be set to music by Lind’s composer Julius Benedict and performed at Lind’s American concerts. The poem of Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), a Pennsylvania poet and author, was chosen from among 700 entries and the composition became a popular part of her repertoire.

Jenny Lind and her entourage arrived in New York City aboard the steamship Atlantic on Sunday 1 September 1850 where an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 40,000 people waited to greet her ship when it dropped anchor. After a few days getting acquainted with the city and meeting dignitaries and petitioners for her charity alike, Jenny performed her first concert at New York’s Castle Garden on Wednesday evening September 11.

Next stop Boston

In a tumultuous year in Boston that began with the trial of John White Webster for the murder of George Parkman, the arrival of Jenny Lind must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Boston newspapers were replete with notices of her voyage, her arrival in New York City, reviews of her first performances, and notices of her charities, paving the way for an enthusiastic reception in Boston. As in New York, prime concert tickets were auctioned off and the top price in Boston ($625 paid by Ossian F. Dodge, a musician) eclipsed that paid in New York by a whopping $375!

Upon her arrival in Boston, Jenny took up residence at the Revere House in four rooms of "superior grandeur." She was visited by the Commonwealth’s notables including Edward Everett, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Governor George Briggs, and Daniel Webster. After playing to enthusiastic and packed houses at the Tremont Temple, Jenny was scheduled to perform her final two Boston concerts at the Fitchburg Railroad Depot on Causeway Street—a decision that threatened to destroy any goodwill she and Barnum had earned. Although the hall was not particularly well suited to musical performances, the first evening’s concert passed without incident, but on the second and final night, a large and boisterous crowd gathered and a near riot ensued with crowds rushing the stage, broken windows and doors, and disgruntled patrons. The Boston Atlas of 14 October 1850 described it as a "disgraceful scene … the last of a series of unparalleled impositions on the public." Jenny performed despite the chaos, but the bad publicity forced Barnum to issue refunds to hundreds of dissatisfied ticketholders.

Even after her departure from the city, Boston’s newspapers continued to follow the "Swedish Nightingale" on her travels throughout the country-- sharing news of her concert triumphs (and tribulations), charitable acts, and other notes-- assuring she was never far from Bostonians’ minds. After a months-long tour that included stops throughout the United States, as well as Havana, Cuba, Jenny returned to the northeast where, after her 93rd concert, she and Barnum officially parted ways. Jenny paid Barnum for the early termination and continued to tour under her own management. She performed her last concert in Boston (her second "farewell" appearance) on 6 December 1851. Following concerts in New Haven, Worcester, Philadelphia, and New York, Jenny returned to Boston where she married her pianist Otto Goldschmidt at the Louisburg Square home of Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Gray Ward on 5 February 1852. After a three-month honeymoon in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Goldschmidts emerged to perform two charitable concerts in that town as well as three more concerts in New York before departing for England aboard the same ship that had carried her to American shores. With the proceeds of her American tour, estimated at more than $350,000 (more than $9 million in today’s dollars), Jenny Lind was able to fulfil her dream of endowing free schools in her native Sweden. Jenny and Otto Goldschmidt eventually settled in England and had three children. Although she never returned to opera, Jenny continued to perform concerts. She died at age 67 and was buried with a patchwork quilt that had been given to her by schoolchildren during her American tour.

The "Jenny Rage"

The change purse featured here is just one artifact of the Jenny Lind craze in America. In addition to the ubiquitous Jenny Lind songbooks (often with biographies of Jenny and P.T. Barnum) sold at her concerts, there were Jenny Lind lithographs, photographs, tokens, fans, stoves, tea-kettles, and other Lindiana. Long after her departure from this earth, her name and likeness have been used to sell china, silverware, furniture, and even fishing line! Before she had even set foot in Boston, the Liberator of 13 September 1850 chided the building Jenny-mania under the headline "Folly":

…it is time for some of our city people to begin to make fools of themselves, by harnessing themselves to her carriage, or worshipping her as a divinity … nothing will do this season except Jenny Lind blondes, and Jenny Lind berthas, Jenny Lind watches and Jenny Lind chains, Jenny Lind shoes and Jenny Lind petticoats, Jenny Lind hats and head-dresses, and Jenny Lind body-dresses, and a new article called Jenny Lind wrappers … if persons could only get a peep at her sleeping apartments and bill of fare, we have no doubt that they will eat, drink, sleep, wink and blow their noses à la Jenny Lind … they had much better follow the customs of the divine songstress … and distribute charity—à la Jenny Lind!

In November, the Liberator reprinted a story on the craze for all things Jenny, which by this time was sweeping the country:

New stores and saloons and hotels are christened "Jenny Lind"; steamboats, locomotives, stages, and all vehicles are "Jennys"; on ‘Change they sell "Jenny"-see wheat; the spinning "Jenny" is eclipsed by the singing "Jenny," at least for this "Jenny"-ration; people delight in tracing their "Jenny"-alogy back into Sweden; all men seem to be studying verbs in the "Jenny"-tive case; even "Jenny"-rosity is a virtue no longer neglected; even our only military Major Jenny-ral has surrendered to the queen; fond mothers call their babes, sportsmen their dogs and horses, farmers their cows and pigs, "Jennys"; in short "Jenny" is the "Jenny"-ric term for all these things, and for how many more, "Jenny"-sais quoi."

For further reading

Barnum, Phineas T. The Life of P.T. Barnum. New York: Redfield, 1855.

Dunsmore, Sarah Jenny. Jenny Lind: The Story of the Swedish Nightingale. [England]: RedDoor Publishing, 2015.

A biographical account by Jenny Lind Goldschmidt’s great-granddaughter.

Ware, W. Porter and Thaddeus C. Lockard, Jr. P. T. Barnum Presents Jenny Lind: The American Tour of the Swedish Nightingale. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.