Nancy Fish Barnum


Letters to The Independent

Unlike the other women in the collection, Nancy Fish Barnum did not pen “her” letters. They were written by her famous husband P. T. Barnum, who wrote to the editors of The Independent twice during the summer of 1880 on behalf of his wife, perhaps expecting his name and prior relationship with the newspaper to influence their acceptance of her writing. Although her situation in our collection is altered by her husband’s participation in her publication–in that it does not show her agency in getting her work published–her path to publication illuminates social roles and expectations of women during the late nineteenth century.

Barnum’s letters reveal his concern with privacy and his reputation as he asks them to consider Nancy Fish Barnum’s article. In the first letter, Barnum tells the editors that they may “do it with her name or not” per their choice, insisting that his wife is “not a ‘blue stocking’ and has never written for American magazines or journals.” Barnum specifies that he wants no compensation. The second letter, written four days later, expresses Barnum’s displeasure that his request was leaked publicly, against the express instructions of his first letter. He mentions his acquaintance with Dr. Bowen, long-time editor of The Independent, who led the editorial staff during years when Barnum’s own articles appeared in the paper, and asks for a written explanation of the breach in trust. Though he gives the editors the option of forgoing publishing Nancy Fish Barnum’s article, “Dust,” it appeared in the paper the following month on August 12, 1880.