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“Here is a cabinet of great curiosities”: Collecting the past on the American frontier

Theo Padnos, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In a dissertation about museums on the American frontier in the early 19th century, I trace the demise of scientific cabinets and the accompanying rise of popular, pseudo-educational entertainments. Though I have written principally about Cincinnati between the years 1820 and 1830, I have also examined other Ohio museums operating in this decade and the cabinet of curiosities exhibited by General William Clark in St. Louis. I conclude that western museums in general gave way to dazzling but suspicious displays because these latter were far more profitable than scientific cabinets and because the promoters of popular entertainment were more interested in attracting audiences than were men of science in the West. In following the disintegration of scientific cabinets, I focus particularly on various museum efforts to attract public attention to systematized displays of western natural history and culture. The Western Museum in Cincinnati probably owned the nation's most extensive collection of regional specimens in the 1820s and 30s but its displays were not profitable enough to keep the institution in business. In the hopes of resuscitating the museum's fortunes, the owner of the museum built optical “machines” and cosmoramas that offered visitors a grander setting in which to behold pictures of local landmarks and local people. These were moderately popular. I show that their most successful incarnations succeeded by affording visitors images of aristocratic splendor; these provided the museum's customers with a flattering context for self-evaluation. I also show that the success of these exhibitions depended on the precision with which the museum's artists could copy nature. Ultimately, I argue, this enthusiasm for the accurate copy expressed itself in the wildly profitable household goods marketplace of the 1850s in which mechanically reproduced items were prized over all things handmade. In the latter chapters of my dissertation, I show how the Western Museum restored itself to prosperity by staging exhibits that provided visitors with a sharp, critical view of landscape and culture in the West. The criticism was directed by Frances Trollope, a recent immigrant to Cincinnati, who employed her children, their drawing instructor, and the sculptor Hiram Powers to construct painted, mechanized visions of the spiritual condition of western citizens. My dissertation shows that the windfall generated by Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1831) was anticipated by the success of her “Invisible Girl” and her “Infernal Regions,” shown at the Western Museum in Cincinnati between 1828 and 1830. I argue that these exhibits succeeded so well because, like her books, they proposed a drastic but resonant vision of life in the West in which the coarseness of local manners, religious customs, western art and nature itself in the Ohio Valley was indignantly denounced. Trollope's Infernal Regions was profitable enough to be copied by the other contemporary museum in Cincinnati; it was also recast in panoramic facsimile in St. Louis, and eventually transported, intact, in 1839, to the City Saloon on Broadway, in lower Manhattan.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Padnos, Theo, "“Here is a cabinet of great curiosities”: Collecting the past on the American frontier" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988831.