Welcome to the inaugural post in our Signed, Sealed, Delivered blog series, where we’ll highlight some of our favorite, and most fascinating, letters from the Walter Havighurst Special Collections! Miami’s special collections contain thousands upon thousands of original pieces of correspondence across a wide range of manuscript collections. All too often it seems that the art of letter writing and composition in formal correspondence has been lost or forgotten in this modern age of informal e-mail and text communications. Maybe you’ll be inspired by these letters from the past to take out pen and paper instead of your preferred mobile device the next time you want to say hello!
Our Miscellanea Collection contains hundreds of examples of letters from notable people, including former United States presidents, well-known authors, and historical figures. Most of the letters were preserved for their content’s historical and research value, while others were also prized for the “autograph” at the end of the letter. One of the letters in the Miscellanea Collection is this brief one page communication between the famous showman and circus owner, P.T. Barnum, and David Swing (1830-1894), a prominent teacher and clergyman and a 1852 graduate of Miami University. Though we do not know what was contained in Swing’s letter to Barnum, Barnum acknowledges the receipt of a letter from Swing and writes, “My chief desire is to leave a permanent ‘Greatest show on earth’ which shall be educational moral & amusing. I fancy that it is so well systematized & in such good hands that it will exist for a century.”
Well, of course, the Barnum circus enterprise has lasted much longer than a century! Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) founded the circus that eventually became known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus and still delights American audiences to this day. In 1871, Barnum took the popular exhibits from his American Museum in New York City on the road, establishing P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, which by 1872 was billing itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Shown here are the letter in Barnum’s hand and his official business envelope, with Barnum and his associate J.A. Bailey’s portraits, addressed to Swing. Click on the images to enlarge and enjoy!
Special Collections Librarian