By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Jenny Lind was the first international superstar of the musical world. The hoopla in the press over her visit to the United States in 1850 surpassed that of the “British Invasion” of the Beatles a century later. Yet those who met the “Swedish Nightingale” described her as being incredibly modest and generous. She gave large sums of money to charities and the poor, and regularly gave free concerts to Swedish churches in America—including one at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church), in the Philadelphia suburb of Southwark (now Queen Village).
Lind’s visit to this country was arranged by the master showman Phineas T. Barnum, the proprietor of the famous American Museum in New York City and the recently opened Barnum Museum at Seventh and Chestnut in Philadelphia. Barnum had never heard Lind sing, but her reputation convinced him that Lind would be a tremendous attraction in the United States. He engaged Lind for 150 concerts, giving her the unheard of sum of $1000 for each night plus a share of the profits, with virtually all expenses paid.
Barnum was at his museum in Philadelphia in February 1850 when he received word that Jenny Lind had agreed to his terms. But the showman had difficulty in raising the capital for Lind’s American tour; the banks were reluctant to lend money for such an unprecedented venture. At the last minute, a Philadelphia minister, the Rev. Abel C. Thomas, lent Barnum the final $5000 in financing.
Although Jenny Lind’s name and musical accomplishments were fairly well known in the United States, Barnum resolved to place her name on everyone’s lips, initiating a massive publicity and marketing campaign. He devised a contest with a $200 prize for a theme song, “Greeting to America,” that Lind would sing upon her arrival. Several hundred librettos were submitted, and the prize was won by Chester County, Pa., poet and journalist Bayard Taylor.
As the singer boarded a steamer for her voyage to the United States, the Philadelphia Public Ledger featured an article headlined, “The Jenny Lind Fever.” Her tumultuous welcome by thousands at the Canal Street wharf in New York City was trumpeted by newspapers throughout the country, and her concerts at Castle Garden were reported in great detail. When she first approached the footlights on opening night, 10,000 people rose to their feet and gave her three cheers.
As the dates of Jenny Lind’s visit to Philadelphia approached, the merchandising of souvenirs and related products vastly increased. Philadelphia newspapers advertised that people could purchase sheet music for all of her songs at “only six cents the sheet” from Ferrett & Co. music publishers on Eighth Street. Nearby, one could buy Jenny Lind-style collars. Jenny Lind perfume and hair pomade was available at Xavier Bazin’s perfumery at 114 Chestnut Street.
M.A. Root’s recent daguerreotype portrait of Lind was put on public exhibition at the photographer’s establishment in Chestnut Street, across from the Chestnut Street Theatre. The Inquirer reported that Gonpil & Co. was producing an engraving of Root’s daguerreotype, which would soon be on sale to the public. “Thousands are on the look out for it!” the article exclaimed.
Lind arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 16, 1850, after a grueling journey after her concert appearances in New England. She passed through New York City without resting, and took passage on a ship down the Delaware River, disembarking north of Philadelphia at Tacony. There she boarded another steamer that Barnum had chartered, the Edwin Forrest, which traveled only as far as Browning’s Ferry Slip in the suburb of Kensington, where a carriage waited to take her to Jones’s hotel on Chestnut Street. To avoid notice, she entered the hotel by the back way.
In the meantime, a huge crowd awaited Lind’s arrival at the Walnut Street Wharf, her expected landing place. When they learned that she had avoided them by taking a different route, the fans packed the street in front of the hotel, where, although it was late at night, they shouted for Lind to make an appearance.
The Philadelphia North American reported that “the clamor was kept up until Jenny Lind herself appeared upon the piazza, led by Barnum. She walked up the railing, waved her handkerchief to the mob for a minute or two, covering her face with another. The noise of the throng thereupon was truly terrific, in the midst of which Jenny Lind retired.” In his autobiography, however, Barnum later revealed that he had staged a deception. He said that Lind’s traveling companion, Miss Ahmansen, wore Lind’s bonnet and shawl and masqueraded as the singer on the balcony.
The original expectation was the Lind would sing at Musical Fund Hall, at Eighth and Locust, considered by many to be the “best musical hall in the country.” However, the hall was too small to accommodate the crowds who wished to hear the singer. Barnum even offered to pay to demolish the upper part of the buildings walls in order to construct additional galleries on the outside, but the Musical Fund Society feared that this might affect the acoustics and declined the offer.
Instead, her initial performances were booked into the vast horseshoe-shaped interior of the Chestnut Street Theatre, nicknamed “Old Drury,” which could seat 1800 to 2000 persons. On the morning of Oct. 16, while Lind was still traveling to Philadelphia, an auction of tickets to her first concert was held at the theatre. The first bid for a seat was $500. Soon afterward, daguerreotypist M.A. Root won the seat after offering a bid of $625. In all, the auction netted some $12,000 in proceeds.
The following evening, the theatre opened its doors an hour before the 8 p.m. curtain time, and the house was quickly filled. The Inquirer described the scene: “The spectacle was, indeed, fairy-like. The splendid dresses, the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, the eager expectation depicted on every countenance, the brilliant gas-lights, and the whisperings and buzzings of many voices served to produce an unwonted excitement.”
Extra seats had been placed on both sides of the stage for the audience. At stage center was a full orchestra, including some of the best musicians of the city, and conducted by Lind’s accompanist, Julius Benedict.
The music critic for the North American reported that Signor Belletti opened the singing portion of the program with a solo. Then, after a pause, Jenny Lind entered through a center door and walked toward the footlights, where she received a “hearty” reception from the audience. The reporter commented, “Without being handsome, there is in her face a most charming expression, wholly different from the conventional smiling of stage heroines—equally free from boldness or affected reverence for the gazing multitude.”
After a number of low bows, and when silence was restored, her recitative to ‘Come per me’ began. However, said the North American, “whether from a cold or the excitement of the occasion, there was a want of purity and clearness in Jenny Lind’s first utterances, which was evidently noticed by the whole house.
“Another drawback …” the critic pointed out, “was the unfavorable construction of the house [the Chestnut Street Theatre] for music. It has no resonance, but every sound is absorbed and deadened, so much so that the fortissimos of the orchestra were feeble and unsatisfactory.”
In the second part of concert, Lind and Belletti sang a duet from Rossini’s “Turco in Italia.” The North American’s critic stated, “It is in this piece that the first evidence was given by Miss Lind of those powers to which her eminence as a vocalist is due.” In one phrase, “she threw a wholly fresh expression and quality in to her voice, exquisitely sweet without being veiled or suffering any distraction from its character as a full chest organ. … We felt for the first time how versatile were her vocal gifts—for here was a legitimate and artistic power, no trickery, no mere clap-trap.”
In his 1851 commemorative book, “Jenny Lind in America,” C.G. Rosenberg wrote about Jenny Lind’s effect on the generally hard to please Philadelphia audience: “She had sung before one of the most difficult audiences to please that could be collected on this continent. … Yet the audience had been charmed out of its chilliness. … It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the greatest triumph which Jenny Lind had yet achieved upon this side of the Atlantic.”
“On the following Sunday,” Rosenberg wrote, “a sensation, of no common character, was created amongst the congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Gloria Dei, in Swanson street—better known as the “Old Swedes’ Church—by Mdlle. Jenny Lind’s attendance on Divine worship within its walls. At the close of the service she received the greetings of numerous descendants of the pioneer emigrants from her own native land, who had settled on the banks of the Delaware, and were the original founders of the aged edifice, within whose walls she had bent in supplication.
“Strange thoughts must have passed through her mind,” Rosenberg wrote, “as she stood within the building, the brethren of her grandsires, or her great grandsires, had raised on the hunting-grounds of the Weccaccoes; and thought of the various changes which had gradually welded them into another people; and as she responded to the gratulations, which were heaped upon her, a tear stole into her eyes.”
It is said that Lind climbed into the upper gallery of the church, which had been constructed six years earlier, from which she sang, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” from George F. Handel’s “Messiah.” It is possible that she also sang Tayler’s “Greeting to America,” which had been put to music by her accompanist, Julius Benedict.
In December, Lind returned to Philadelphia for a series of concerts at Musical Fund Hall. At that time, the pastor at Gloria Dei, the Rev. Jehu Curtis Clay, was instrumental in arranging a donation from the singer to the Southwark Soup Society on Hancock Street.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of QVNA Magazine, published by the Queen Village Neighbors Association.