A Cabinet of Conundrums: An 1846 List of Proposed “Curiosities” for the Smithsonian Institution

by Leslie Myrick and Martha Rust

In July 1836 the United States Congress was the contingent beneficiary of a $500,000 bequest made by English scientist James Smithson (1765-1829) for the establishment of a new National Museum in Washington, D. C. to be known as the Smithsonian Institution. Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Percy, the first Duke of Northumberland, never married and named a nephew as heir to his considerable fortune. When the nephew died without issue six years after Smithson’s death in Genoa in 1829, the bequest was duly transferred to Congress for the foundation of an American National Museum. A museum, as noted in our recent post “L’allure de liste,” can be a site that both contains list-like arrangements of objects and inspires written lists of the same. In the case of the Smithsonian museum, a curious list of proposed objects suggests that the list form itself could be the subject of a museum exhibition.

After some ten years of debate over its scope and administration, the Smithsonian Institution was finally established by an act of Congress on 10 August 1846. Nearly another decade passed before the Great Hall was completed, in 1855. Nicknamed “the Castle,” the hall featured an Apparatus Room, exhibiting “The Great Barometer” built by James Green along with several early electrical apparati, a lecture hall and an art gallery. The inaugural collection, which had incorporated materials from the National Institute, and (in 1858) the U.S. Exploring Expedition, was strong in natural history, mineralogy, and geology, in fulfillment of Smithson’s stipulation that the bequest be used to build “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”1

With its strengths in science and technology, Washington’s new National Museum stood in marked contrast to the several New York City American Museums that had existed since the 1790s, mostly consisting of a motley array of natural history specimens—galleries of taxidermied animals, wax figures, miscellaneous curiosities, and various types of panoramas. These museums of curiosities, an urbanization of provincial itinerant side-shows, also flourished during the early to mid-19th century in cities such as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. During the period of debate over the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, P.T. Barnum undertook to construct a collection of “natural curiosities” on a monumental scale. In 1841 he purchased Scudder’s American Museum building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York along with its tired collection of natural history specimens, and he transformed it into Barnum’s American Museum: five floors full of galleries with a head-spinning variety of curiosities and wonders, with an elaborate “lecture hall” that rivaled any theater in the city. By 1842 an ad for the American Museum boasted “over 500,000 curiosities:”


How could The Great Barometer at the new National Museum ever compete with such wonders? 

Some ideas emerged a few months after the announcement of its establishment  in a letter submitted to the editor of the New York Journal of Commerce, which offered a comical list of inaugural “curiosities” for the Smithsonian Board’s consideration. The list was widely reprinted, while the wag who composed it was hailed by one editor as a fitting contributor to Yankee Doodle, one of the earliest American humor magazines, or the recently founded London Punch (Augusta Chronicle, 11 November 1846, 2, citing the editor of the Constitutionalist). The humor, though it might not move a modern reader to laughter,  is of a fairly sophisticated order: in nearly every case the “curiosity” consists of a literal or physical object derived from a pun embedded in an idiomatic phrase, or figure of speech, e.g. “a pound of butter from the cream of a joke (a “dead” metaphor?), and a cheese from the milk of human kindness.” Several of the curiosities point to current news items that can be easily enough traced, e.g. “bristles from the last brush with the Mexicans,” referring to the Mexican-American war, but the bulk play upon abstract figures. The dependence upon puns for humorous effect puts these items in the same category as conundrums, a very popular comic form in the mid-19th century.2 In view of the obscurity of some of the puns, we have provided an ample sprinkling of footnotes. The following transcription is from the Philadelphia Public Ledger, 29 October 1846, 4; reprinting the New York Journal of Commerce.

New York, Oct. 19, 1846.

Feeling an interest in the National Museum, whose formation you have announced, I beg leave to offer the following curiosities for the acceptance of the managers:

The tail of an Irish Bull.3
Some sand from Time’s hour-glass.
A torn ruffle, from Love’s last shift.4
The iron, from the plane of the ecliptic.5
A quandary, with a man in it.
Part of the patch with which O’Connel’s rent was mended.6
Half a dozen feathers from a gin cocktail.
A fishing rod and two walking sticks, made of hurricane.7
A knock-down argument, and the impression it made.
The world in miniature; very old copy,—faded.8
A pound of butter from the cream of a joke, and a cheese from the milk of human kindness.
The march of mind, arranged for a full orchestra, with Trumpet obligato, by Fame.9
Some bristles from the last brush with the Mexicans, and a little of Gen. Ampudia’s dander on them.
A fluke from the anchor of Hope.10
Whiskers and noses, from a masked battery.11
The shadow of the meat the dog saw in the water.12
A pair of sculls from a White Hall boat, and a table showing the phrenological developments.13
A bottle of the smoke that Mr. Polk’s messages ended in.14
Some ten-penny nails, made from a fragment of the iron duke.15
A finger post, from the road to ruin.16
Music of the spheres, original score.
The cap of a climax.17
Musket and powder-horn of a shooting star.
The faith that Henry III defended; rather the worse for the scuffle.
A boot made on the last of the Mohegans, with one of the spurs of the Rocky Mountains on the heel.18
The pearl that Cleopatra drank; and the two diamonds that cut one another.19
A silk tassel from the staff of life.
The afternoon of the Day of Algiers.20
Some of the eels that were used to being skinned.21
A pair of pointers, from the Great Bear; well trained.22
A hinge from the gates of death, and some of the snuff that the child wasn’t quite up to.23
I hold these things subject to your order, and should I find anything further worthy of a place on the shelves of the Museum, shall inform you.

From the point of view of listology, these “things”–a cap, a boot, some bristles, a pearl, to name a few–might be exhibited in a room in the Smithsonian dedicated to the (cognitive) technology of the list form. There the objects would showcase the phenomenological effect of nouns in a list: that is, that they call to mind their real-world referents. In such a list, as Rita Copeland argues, “words are themselves treated like objects that are linked, by their designative function, to things in the world.”24 Rather than being placed on shelves, as our humorist suggests, each  item in this exhibit would have its own case, in keeping with the list form, in which items are distinct from each other even as they are connected by the enclosed space of the exhibit. In addition, each case would have a caption indicating the object’s provenance, demonstrating the tendency, noted by William Gass, for list items to be “of” something else: the caption for the anchor fluke would explain, for instance, that it was “of” the anchor of hope; the one for the cap  would explain that it was “of” a climax.25 Ideally, the “technology of the list” exhibit would be next door to the mineralogy room since it displays the products of a kind of mining. The author of this list has mined idiomatic phrases, puns, and fossilized metaphors, successfully extracting a list of lexical objects that refer to real things in the world. Going one step further, the exhibit displays the things themselves: what a wonder!

[1] “Last Will and Testament, October 23, 1826,” Stories from the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institute Archives. 
[2]  For instance, see this short list from the New London Morning News (28 November 1845, 3): Conundrums.–Why are friction matches like wild young fellows? Ans. Go on scrapes. When are ships’ passengers like cattle? Ans. When in steer-age. When are nuts insane? Ans. When they’re cracked.
[3]  An Irish bull was a form of malapropism, or an unintentionally humorous incongruous statement, especially associated with Sir Boyle Roche, an 18th century Irish M.P., who wondered, for instance, “Why should we do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?”
[4]  A pun on two meanings of “shift” as “an article of clothing” and “a device or trick (cf. “shifty”).” The reference is to Colly Cibber’s Restoration comedy Love’s Last Shift; or, The Fool in Fashion (1696), in which an abandoned wife disguises herself as a prostitute, in a final shift or trick to win back her absent husband.
[5]  A pun on two senses of “plane,” as an iron implement for shaving wood and as a flat surface. The ecliptic plane was conceived as the orbital plane of the earth around the sun.
[6] A pun on two meanings of “rent” as a “tear” or “rip” that can be mended, vs. the extra-constitutional “rent” that Irish M. P. Daniel O’Connel exacted from his constituents, to replace his law practice salary (Members of Parliament were unpaid). See “O’Connel’s Pay or ‘Rent’,” Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, 12 August 1843, 3.
[7] A pun on hurri-cane. In the 1840s the hollow stalks from bamboo or sugar cane plants were appropriate for fishing rods and walking sticks.
[8]  Tourist haunts such as Saratoga and London were commonly described as “worlds in miniature” in the 1840s. The pun derives from the dual meaning of miniature as a small painting (“an old copy, faded) and as an idiomatic expression of a city’s perceived representative cultural mix.
[9]  Relies on two senses of “march,” as a musical genre, and as an abstraction synonymous to “progression.” The reference is to a debate on the possibilities and pitfalls of universal education, known as the March of Intellect or the March of Mind.
[10]  Fluke refers to the claw-like end of an anchor arm that lodges into the sea-bed; here, of an idiomatic “anchor of hope.”
[11] Based on two senses of “masked”—wearing a literal mask, here, with nose and whiskers, vs. the more abstract sense “hidden,” as in a concealed artillery position.
[12]  A reference to one of Aesop’s fables, in which a dog with a portion of meat in his mouth saw his own reflection, magnified, in a river, and dropped his own portion in order to attack the “other dog” and gain his larger portion. It was used in an editorial on “The Difference” (i.e. the rapprochement between the Know-Nothing wing of the Whig party and the Democrats) in the 1844 campaigns, in Liberty’s Advocate, 7 October 1843, 1.
[13]  Joke based on a pun on sculls/skulls. A white hall boat was a clinker-built keeled rowing craft, propelled by sculls, or oars.
[14]  The OED defines a “bottle of smoke” as a lie or a chimera. In the 1840s this idiom was often applied to the empty statements of politicians. A London news item employs it to express the futility of the world markets’ anticipation of President Polk’s announcement on the annexation of Texas. See the London Standard, 2 May 1845, 2: “The American residents here still contend, however, that it will all end in a bottle of smoke, as they attach no importance to Mr. Polk’s declaration one way or another.”
[15]  A reference to Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo and Tory politician of great resolve, known as the “Iron Duke.”
[16] The pun calls forth a physical sign-post on the idiomatic “road to ruin.”
[17]  Plays upon two senses of the word “cap” as a literal head covering vs an expression for “the ultimate,” “the top” etc.
[18]  A pun based on two meanings of “last,” as a shoemaker’s form, and as a temporal abstraction, in the case of Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, followed by a pun on “spur” as an accessory for a boot, or as a geographic feature.
[19]  Two gemological items, a tip of the hat to Smithson, who was a mineralogist and chemist. The story of Cleopatra’s dinner with Marc Antony, when she proved her superior wealth by spiking her drink with a pulverized pearl, was first told by Pliny the Elder (Natural History IX, 119-121). “Cleopatra’s pearl” became shorthand for a particularly egregious  act of extravagance. The second item refers to the idiomatic phrase “diamond cut diamond,” which describes a situation where two equally sharp foes face each other.
[20]  Convoluted joke based on an anglicization of the “Dey of Algiers,” the leader of the Algerians in their contracted war against French colonizers.
[21]  Joke based on an old maxim that fisherman’s eels are so used to being skinned that they take no notice. See, for instance, “Whig Candidates, The Union, &c.,” Maine Democrat, 26 August 1845, 2: “But like the fisherman’s eels, they [Whigs] are used to being skinned.”
[22]  Based on the  dual meaning here of “pointers” as a breed of dog and as the two stars, Merak and Dubhe, in Ursa Major that sailors used to point the way to the North Star.
[23]According to the OED, the idiom “up to snuff” was first used in a parody of Hamlet in 1810: 3a. up to snuff, knowing, sharp, not easily deceived; up to the required or usual standard, up to scratch. Also attributive. 1810   J. Poole Hamlet Travestie ii. i. 21   Zooks, he’s up to snuff.
[24]  Rita Copeland, “Naming, Knowing, and the Object of Language in Alexander Neckham’s Grammar Curriculum,” Journal of Medieval Latin 20 (2010): 38-57, at 54.
[25]William Gass, “And.” Voicelust (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 101-25, at 118.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: