George B. Bunnell: Pioneer of the Dime Museum

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George Bunnell was a protege of P.T. Barnum’s and a crucial figure in the development of the American dime museum. After numerous iterations of Barnum’s American Museum burned down his activities began to split. His amusement interests became focused on traveling circuses. While he had some vague ideas of reopening a grand new version of the American Museum, his status as a substantial citizen, philanthropist and even a politician made the association with humbug problematic. His tendency in later years was to endow respectable natural history museums with his wealth. In 1876, Bunnell brought him the perfect solution: the opportunity to underwrite Bunnell’s new venture, which he would call the New American Museum. Located in New York’s entertainment district on the Bowery, Bunnell purchased the collection of Wood’s Museum, and became the pre-eminent institution of its kind for a time.

Like Barnum, Bunnell suffered several fires. There were actually three seperate Bunnell museums at three different locations while he operated over the course of a decade. He did whatever he could to evoke the glory days of Barnum’s museums. The facade was made to look like Barnum’s, and he made a lecture room and theatre central to the operation. Among the many people he employed were Chang the Chinese Giant, the Wild Men of Borneo, Capt Bates and Anna Swan, Admiral Dot and Major Atom. Future vaudeville mogul B.F. Keith got his start working for Bunnell, as did the comedy team of Weber & Fields, who got Bunnell’s attention by claiming to know a Chinese man with a third eye growing out of the middle of his forehead.

It was Bunnell who first had the bright idea reducing admission from twenty five cents to a dime, thus giving birth to the dime museum. Many imitators followed his lead, but most ran a much shabbier operation than Bunnell, who always tried to emulate Barnum in maintaining a certain level of class and elegance. He retired in 1887.

To learn more history about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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