Before there was Hamilton, before Beatlemania, before Elvis, there was Lindomania; and in 1850 it took Virginia by storm.
Jenny Lind was a Swedish opera singer who gained great notoriety in Europe in the late 1830s. Noted composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer admired her and helped advance her career so that in 1849 she was able to retire at the age of 29 after a final performance attended by Queen Victoria and other members of the British family.
However, in an age before even the most rudimentary sound recordings (the phonograph would not come along for more than 20 years), the only way to experience Jenny Lind’s singing was to attend one of her shows, an option that was out of reach not only monetarily for most people but physically as well for the majority of Americans. Enter the nation’s best showman: P. T. Barnum.
In 1849, Barnum convinced Lind to do an American tour and “Lindomania” officially began as everyone scampered for the chance to say that had seen the “Swedish Nightingale.” Virginians followed along in the newspaper as concerts were held in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Long articles that focused more on the crowds and Lind’s looks rather than her singing flooded the papers and filled Virginians with jealousy and longing. A letter to the editor of the Richmond Enquirer from a Virginian staying in Philadelphia stated:
You are aware that Jenny Lind is in this godly city, and perhaps no cause could create the sensation that she does. If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should for twenty-four hours ride up and down Chestnut street, in the chariot which bore Elijah to Heaven, attended by all the music that was ever heard in King David’s “day and generation,” I doubt that as much sensation would be the effect, even among the white-neck gentry…
One Richmond gentleman in particular did everything in his power to get Virginia’s capital added to the list of locations.
John Rueben Thompson, then editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, published a poem entitled “The Voice of Richmond to Phineas T. Barnum” begging Barnum to bring the “Swedish songstress” to Richmond even though its theaters were not as large as those in many Northern cities. When this poem did not seem to guarantee Richmond’s place on the itinerary, Thompson wrote a poem beseeching Lind directly, aptly titled “To Jenny Herself.” He plied her with Southern charm and hospitality, mentioning that some of the less than stellar reviews she had obtained in New York were simply a product of Northerner coldness and she should “turn to a region less socially bleak” where she would be warmly welcomed. The good-natured ribbing aimed at the North revealed the deeper truth of how a country that was becoming more and more divided clung tightly to common joys. The Alexandria Gazette printed a poem entitled “Welcome to Jenny Lind’ on 18 December 1850, the first stanza of which read:
Though we prize our own land and its fair institutions,
And glory in keeping the “Union entire;”
Though the several States form their own constitutions,
As most fitted for what they themselves may require:
Yet we as a Nation of many states blending,
Can give to the stranger’s steps hitherward bending,
The right hand of friendship, the welcoming smile.
While Richmonders waited for Lind’s reply, newspapers all around Virginia advertised numerous wares, including, but not limited to:
- A daguerreotype of Jenny Lind
- A porcelain bust of Jenny Lind
- Jenny Lind song sheets
- Jenny Lind bridle buckles
- Jenny Lind velvet fringes
- Jenny Lind perfume cushions
- Jenny Lind collars & cuffs
- Jenny Lind pomade
- Jenny Lind neckties
- The Life of Jenny Lind
- Jenny Lind handkerchiefs
- Jenny Lind “gips, steel, mettle and silk buttons”
- Jenny Lind extract for your toilet
- Jenny Lind lustres
- Jenny Lind bonnets
- Jenny Lind braid
- Jenny Lind flour
- Jenny Lind boots
- Jenny Lind “coats & caps for the children”
If the businessman could not find a way to directly adhere Jenny Lind’s name to the product, he could always use the approach of Barry’s Theopherous Hair Restorative which advertised that “like Jenny Lind it stands unrivaled” in performance. The societal obsession reached beyond the stores—the first train to pass over the completed Central Railroad line from its junction to Richmond in 1850 was named Jenny Lind and a ship (transporting guano) named Jenny Lind docked in Richmond as well.
On 10 December 1850 the Richmond Enquirer proclaimed, “JENNY LIND WILL BE HERE!” The newspaper “hasten[ed] to proclaim this important intelligence” so that “friends every where [could] prepare for this grand occasion” in the short ten days allotted to them before the concert, which was scheduled for 20 December.
Knowing how to make the best use of the mania, Barnum sent an employee to auction off the best tickets the day before the show. The chance to pick the first seat was auctioned off at the price of $105 (equivalent to about $3,400 today) to a Baltimore businessman who then donated the ticket to the Matron of the Female Orphan Asylum. The Staunton Spectactor blanched at the cost, commenting that they were “pleased to see no citizen of our Metropolis had ears long enough to reach the pinnacle of Northern extravagance,” although one Staunton resident, a Mr. J. H. Whitehurst, was. “Lind struck to the sum of $55” or around $1,800.
There is some debate on how expensive the cheapest tickets were, with newspapers giving accounts of $5 to $8. Dr. William Wirt (son of Attorney General William Wirt) lamented in a letter to a friend that “the theatre was crowded. Tickets from 25$ to 5$. Ours cost 7$ [about $231] and I had to stand up all night at that.” An unsubstantiated story in the New York Observer and Chronicle spoke of a Richmonder, en route to purchase a ticket with ten dollars, encountering a man with a broken cart. “The ten dollars intended for the concert were immediately given for this purpose, and he returned home without hearing the far-famed Miss Jenny,” but finding that his act of charity resulted in a “calmer and purer joy.” Regardless of its veracity, the story illustrates just how big an expenditure the tickets were and how far out of reach for most Virginians.
Jenny Lind arrived in Richmond on the evening of 19 December 1850, fresh from a concert in Washington, D.C., that was attended by members of Congress and President Millard Fillmore. During her time there she also was treated to a reception at the White House, interrupted the course of Congressional debate by visiting the Capitol, and toured Mount Vernon. It was a rainy evening, but still people surrounded the train station hoping for a glimpse of her. In the Virginia House of Delegates, Vincent Witcher called for that body to adjourn due to “the Jenny Lind furor” but was outvoted. Lind checked into a suite at the Exchange Hotel, located at 14th and Franklin St. The Armory Band stood outside the hotel and tried to serenade her until almost two in the morning, according to the Richmond Enquirer.
Lind was often described as a simple and modest woman. One Virginian noted that she did not have “the face of a Virginia beauty.” One audience member of a prior concert said in the Shepherdstown [Va.] Register that “her motions were easy and natural,” another that “she seemed to float upon the air;” however, Dr. Wirt confided in a friend that he felt she “comes upon the stage with a sort of…trot and continues as if she were stiff both in the knee and hip joints.” Most, however, remarked on her temperament of “modesty and kindness,” traits that were important for the reputation of a single woman earning a living as a performer. In fact, one paper remarked in a convoluted compliment that she was “more fitted to grace even the domestic circle than to shine on the public arena.”
The theater was packed, with benches even placed directly on the stage. But no one was present just to see her movements or demeanor; in fact, when rumors were spread that Lind may have given money to abolitionists and should therefore be barred from performing in Richmond and Washington, the National Era [Washington, D.C.] noted that “we sat listening to Jenny Lind without once thinking of what her principles might be.” Instead, the focus was on the music. The Richmond Dispatch gave a muted approval, noting “We have not time to say more in way of criticism. Every body seemed delighted.” The Richmond Whig compared her voice to “a stream of pearls flowing into a golden basin.”
Pleading a tired voice, Lind gave only one concert in Richmond and then spent Saturday being escorted by Governor John Floyd through the Executive Mansion and the Virginia Capitol. Despite the disappointment of those hoping for a second concert, Jenny Lind left a positive impression on Richmond. The Richmond Enquirer felt that “far above the artiste or the possessor of a wonderful voice, stands the pure, highminded woman, more noble by her virtuous character, and her more than regal charities, than she could ever become by the mere force of her musical endowments. The greatest element in her success is undoubtedly her reputation.” The “Swedish Syren” left for Charleston on Saturday but not before donating a large sum of money to the Richmond Female Orphan Asylum, the Richmond Male Orphan Asylum, and St. Joseph’s Female Orphan Asylum.
J. R. Thompson, who first wrote to P. T. Barnum and Jenny Lind on behalf of Richmond, claimed the credit for setting up the Virginia concert. Once again, he picked up his pen and wrote a poem, entitled “Jenny Lind”:
-Jessi Bennett, Digital Collections Specialist