This is the fourth week of my year-long blogging project. See here for more details.
Charles Stratton was born in January 1838 to Sherwood Stratton, a carpenter, and his wife, Cynthia, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. At birth, he weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces (a large baby) and he continued to develop at a “normal” rate for the first six months of his life, reaching a weight of fifteen pounds and a height of 25 inches. And then he stopped growing. Four years later, showman P.T. Barnum described his first encounter with the child:
I had heard of a remarkably small child in Bridgeport; and by my request my brother brought him to the hotel. He was the smallest child I ever saw that could walk alone. He was not two feet in height, and weighed less than sixteen pounds. He was a bright-eyed little fellow, with light hair and ruddy cheeks, was perfectly healthy, and as symmetrical as an Apollo. He was exceedingly bashful, but after some coaxing he was induced to converse with me, and informed me that his name was CHARLES S. STRATTON. (qtd. in Cook, 57)
Seeing great potential in the child, Barnum convinced the Strattons to sign an agreement that essentially indentured their son to Barnum for a year, during which time the showman assumed control of the boy’s instruction, promotion, and exhibition (Harris 52). In an interesting inversion of the normal practice of promoting child performers as several years younger than their actual age, Barnum advertised “General Tom Thumb,” his rechristened prodigy, as an eleven-year old boy so that that his small size would seem even more impressive.
Charles Stratton proved to be a quick learner and under Barnum’s tutelage he developed a cheeky performance style characterized by risqué jokes, witty banter with men and flirtatious exchanges with women (attempts to sneak kisses). Rather than perform in full-length plays, Stratton appeared in “levees,” a salon or parlor style of solo performance that encouraged audience interaction. These levees typically featured Stratton’s impersonations of famous historical characters, including Napoleon and Frederick the Great, as well as more generic ethnic types, e.g. Scottish highlander, an English sailor. And in keeping with the popularity of tableaux vivants (or living pictures), Stratton also developed a sequence of poses that resembled classical Greek statuary.
After a successful debut in New York at Barnum’s American Museum, Stratton (accompanied by his parents and a paid tutor/keeper) embarked on a tour of the United States, visiting Philadelphia, Baltimore, and numerous cities in the South, where he attracted huge crowds (filling Barnum’s coffers). This is a typical spectator’s response: “I cannot describe the sensations with which one looks upon the diminutive specimen of humanity. Were he deformed, or sickly, or melancholy, we might pity him; but he is so manly, so handsome, so hearty, and so happy, that we look upon him as a being from another sphere” (qtd. in Fitzsimmons 62).
Never one to shy away from promotional opportunities, Barnum arranged for the publication and sale of Tom Thumb’s biography as well as numerous lithographs and photographs. This promotional material helped to spread Tom Thumb’s name throughout North America and across the Atlantic.
Here is a photograph of Stratton as a young child, attributed to the US photographer Matthew Brady and reportedly taken during Stratton’s first European tour (c. 1844-1846). At first glance, the photo appears to be a straightforward portrait of a child dressed in an elegant coat and cravat; on closer examination, however, we can see that the child is standing on a small table or possibly a stool covered with a cloth.
Stratton assumes a similar pose in this lithograph. Dressed in an elegant suit, with walking stick in hand, he looks directly at the viewer from his elevated position on an elegant wooden chair. The chair dominates the scene, offering visual evidence of Stratton’s small stature (it is twice his size). Yet if we compare this image with other photographs and promotional images of Stratton, we can see that the scale is off -just as Barnum inflated Stratton’s age to impress audiences, so too this image represents Stratton as much smaller than he would otherwise have appeared in “real life.” Here scale is deliberately used to attract the viewer’s attention and provoke the questions: is this for real? Is he actually that small?
Of course, the chair also complements Stratton’s stylish dress, marking him as a child of taste, gentility, and elegance. Despite his size, the image implies, he would not be out of place in a parlor or drawing room setting – or even in the company of aristocrats and royalty. This illustration promotes a similar idea. Stratton, costumed as Frederick the Great, performs against a backdrop of table, tablecloth, and chair. His walking stick mirrors the legs of the table and chair, while the braid, ribbon, and other details of his military costume harmonize with the tablecloth pattern and chair upholstery. He looks dignified and commanding, a boy performing authority.
At the same time, the assemblage of chair, table, and table cloth work to mark Stratton as other, atypical, on a different scale (quite literally) than those around him. As cultural theorist Sara Ahmed writes, “Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others. Objects are made to size as well as made to order: while they come in a range of sizes, the sizes also presume certain kinds of bodies as having ‘sizes’ that will ‘match.’ In this way, bodies and their objects tend toward each other; they are orientated toward each other, and are shaped by this orientation” (52). But Stratton was oriented differently to the tables and chairs and the promotional images were created specifically to highlight this difference. In these images it becomes evident that the tables and chairs are not the “right” size for Stratton and/or he is not the “right” size for them.
This brings me to my second point – about the role of the tables and chairs in marking Stratton’s cuteness and commodity status.
As both Lori Merish and Sianne Ngai have shown, children have historically been aligned with commodities through their performance of cuteness, while small or miniaturized commodities have in turn been aligned with children through their projection of vulnerability and fragility. According to Merish, “…the cute always in some sense designates a commodity in search of its mother, and is constructed to generate material desire; the consumer (or potential consumer) of the cute is expected… to pretend she or he is the cute’s mother” (186). We respond to displays of vulnerability and emotional openness, which direct us (like a stage director) to hold, embrace, and care for the cute object or being. And cute sells! We can see how cuteness as an aesthetic operates through dolls, stuffed animals, and other objects typically associated with children, which aestheticize a kind of “powerlessness.” As Merish puts it, “What the cute stages is, in part, a need for adult care” (187).
Merish traces the collision or intersection of cuteness and commodity culture to the mid-nineteenth century, when manufacturers and emergent department stores began to target female consumers more aggressively. And she goes so far as to suggest that the popularity of a performer like Charles Stratton/ Tom Thumb was closely connected to the way he inhabited and performed cuteness, inviting audiences to adore him and collect, if not actually him, than images, books, and other items associated with him.
This image of Stratton on a writing table offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the aesthetic of cuteness and its elision with Victorian commodity culture. Stratton, dressed (again) as an elegant gentleman in a suit with a tail coat, buttoned vest, and a carefully tied cravat, is surrounded by objects – three books of varying sizes, an egg in an egg cup, a spoon, a wine bottle and wine glass, a feather pen, a seal, ink pots, and a box for writing implements. This constellation of objects connotes bourgeois respectability, education, and productivity. From a practical perspective, the assemblage also performs scale, demonstrating the uniqueness of the 25 inch-tall Stratton: he is barely taller than a bottle of wine, his feet are smaller than an egg, his legs are shorter than a feather; he would have difficulty holding a seal… But in this performance of scale, the objects gathered on the table also imply that Stratton is like them – he is a small, cute commodity, a collectible to be treasured and displayed or used. Here he appears as less a boy or a man than a doll, a precious object among objects, ready to be displayed on a study table or parlor mantelpiece.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects Others. Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2006.
Cook, James W. ed. The Colossal PT Barnum Reader: Nothing Else Like It in the Universe. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Fitzsimmons, Raymond. Barnum in London. New York: St. Martin’s, 1970.
Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York: New York University, 1996): 185-203, at 186.
Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).