Definition of the word humbug⁠—​Warren of London⁠—​Genin, The hatter⁠—Gosling’s blacking.

Upon a careful consideration of my undertaking to give an account of the “Humbugs of the World,” I find myself somewhat puzzled in regard to the true definition of that word. To be sure, Webster says that humbug, as a noun, is an “imposition under fair pretences;” and as a verb, it is “to deceive; to impose on.” With all due deference to Doctor Webster, I submit that, according to present usage, this is not the only, nor even the generally accepted definition of that term.

We will suppose, for instance, that a man with “fair pretences” applies to a wholesale merchant for credit on a large bill of goods. His “fair pretences” comprehend an assertion that he is a moral and religious man, a member of the church, a man of wealth, etc., etc. It turns out that he is not worth a dollar, but is a base, lying wretch, an impostor and a cheat. He is arrested and imprisoned “for obtaining property under false pretences” or, as Webster says, “fair pretences.” He is punished for his villainy. The public do not call him a “humbug;” they very properly term him a swindler.

A man, bearing the appearance of a gentleman in dress and manners, purchases property from you, and with “fair pretences” obtains your confidence. You find, when he has left, that he paid you with counterfeit banknotes, or a forged draft. This man is justly called a “forger,” or “counterfeiter;” and if arrested, he is punished as such; but nobody thinks of calling him a “humbug.”

A respectable-looking man sits by your side in an omnibus or rail-car. He converses fluently, and is evidently a man of intelligence and reading. He attracts your attention by his “fair pretences.” Arriving at your journey’s end, you miss your watch and your pocketbook. Your fellow passenger proves to be the thief. Everybody calls him a “pickpocket,” and not withstanding his “fair pretences,” not a person in the community calls him a “humbug.”

Two actors appear as stars at two rival theatres. They are equally talented, equally pleasing. One advertises himself simply as a tragedian, under his proper name⁠—the other boasts that he is a prince, and wears decorations presented by all the potentates of the world, including the “King of the Cannibal Islands.” He is correctly set down as a “humbug,” while this term is never applied to the other actor. But if the man who boasts of having received a foreign title is a miserable actor, and he gets up gift-enterprises and bogus entertainments, or pretends to devote the proceeds of his tragic efforts to some charitable object, without, in fact, doing so⁠—he is then a humbug in Dr. Webster’s sense of that word, for he is an “impostor under fair pretences.”

Two physicians reside in one of our fashionable avenues. They were both educated in the best medical colleges; each has passed an examination, received his diploma, and been dubbed an M.D. They are equally skilled in the healing art. One rides quietly about the city in his gig or brougham, visiting his patients without noise or clamor⁠—the other sallies out in his coach and four, preceded by a band of music, and his carriage and horses are covered with handbills and placards, announcing his “wonderful cures.” This man is properly called a quack and a humbug. Why? Not because he cheats or imposes upon the public, for he does not, but because, as generally understood, “humbug” consists in putting on glittering appearances⁠—outside show⁠—novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.

Clergymen, lawyers, or physicians, who should resort to such methods of attracting the public, would not, for obvious reasons, be apt to succeed. Bankers, insurance-agents, and others, who aspire to become the custodians of the money of their fellow-men, would require a different species of advertising from this; but there are various trades and occupations which need only notoriety to insure success, always provided that when customers are once attracted, they never fail to get their money’s worth. An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,” but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a “humbug.” He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an outré manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.

When the great blacking-maker of London dispatched his agent to Egypt to write on the pyramids of Ghiza, in huge letters, “Buy Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand, London,” he was not “cheating” travelers upon the Nile. His blacking was really a superior article, and well worth the price charged for it, but he was “humbugging” the public by this queer way of arresting attention. It turned out just as he anticipated, that English travelers in that part of Egypt were indignant at this desecration, and they wrote back to the London Times (every Englishman writes or threatens to “write to the Times,” if anything goes wrong,) denouncing the “Goth” who had thus disfigured these ancient pyramids by writing on them in monstrous letters: “Buy Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand, London.” The Times published these letters, and backed them up by several of those awful, grand and dictatorial editorials peculiar to the great “Thunderer,” in which the blacking-maker, “Warren, 30 Strand,” was stigmatized as a man who had no respect for the ancient patriarchs, and it was hinted that he would probably not hesitate to sell his blacking on the sarcophagus of Pharaoh, “or any other”⁠—mummy, if he could only make money by it. In fact, to cap the climax, Warren was denounced as a “humbug.” These indignant articles were copied into all the Provincial journals, and very soon, in this manner, the columns of every newspaper in Great Britain were teeming with this advice: “Try Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand, London.” The curiosity of the public was thus aroused, and they did “try” it, and finding it a superior article, they continued to purchase it and recommend it to their friends, and Warren made a fortune by it. He always attributed his success to his having “humbugged” the public by this unique method of advertising his blacking in Egypt! But Warren did not cheat his customers, nor practice “an imposition under fair pretences.” He was a humbug, but he was an honest upright man, and no one called him an impostor or a cheat.

When the tickets for Jenny Lind’s first concert in America were sold at auction, several businessmen, aspiring to notoriety, “bid high” for the first ticket. It was finally knocked down to “Genin, the hatter,” for $225. The journals in Portland (Maine) and Houston (Texas), and all other journals throughout the United States, between these two cities, which were connected with the telegraph, announced the fact in their columns the next morning. Probably two millions of readers read the announcement, and asked, “Who is Genin, the hatter?” Genin became famous in a day. Every man involuntarily examined his hat, to see if it was made by Genin; and an Iowa editor declared that one of his neighbors discovered the name of Genin in his old hat and immediately announced the fact to his neighbors in front of the Post Office. It was suggested that the old hat should be sold at auction. It was done then and there, and the Genin hat sold for fourteen dollars! Gentlemen from city and country rushed to Genin’s store to buy their hats, many of them willing to pay even an extra dollar, if necessary, provided they could get a glimpse of Genin himself. This singular freak put thousands of dollars into the pocket of “Genin, the hatter,” and yet I never heard it charged that he made poor hats, or that he would be guilty of an “imposition under fair pretences.” On the contrary, he is a gentleman of probity, and of the first respectability.

When the laying of the Atlantic Telegraph was nearly completed, I was in Liverpool. I offered the company one thousand pounds sterling ($5,000) for the privilege of sending the first twenty words over the cable to my Museum in New York⁠—not that there was any intrinsic merit in the words, but that I fancied there was more than $5,000 worth of notoriety in the operation. But Queen Victoria and “Old Buck” were ahead of me. Their messages had the preference, and I was compelled to “take a back seat.”

By thus illustrating what I believe the public will concede to be the sense in which the word “humbug” is generally used and understood at the present time, in this country as well as in England, I do not propose that my letters on this subject shall be narrowed down to that definition of the word. On the contrary, I expect to treat of various fallacies, delusions, and deceptions in ancient and modern times, which, according to Webster’s definition, may be called “humbugs,” inasmuch as they were “impositions under fair pretences.”

In writing of modern humbugs, however, I shall sometimes have occasion to give the names of honest and respectable parties now living, and I felt it but just that the public should fully comprehend my doctrine, that a man may, by common usage, be termed a “humbug,” without by any means impeaching his integrity.

Speaking of “blacking-makers,” reminds me that one of the first sensationists in advertising whom I remember to have seen, was Mr. Leonard Gosling, known as “Monsieur Gosling, the great French blacking-maker.” He appeared in New York in 1830. He flashed like a meteor across the horizon; and before he had been in the city three months, nearly everybody had heard of “Gosling’s Blacking.” I well remember his magnificent “four in hand.” A splendid team of blood bays, with long black tails, was managed with such dexterity by Gosling himself, who was a great “whip,” that they almost seemed to fly. The carriage was emblazoned with the words “Gosling’s Blacking,” in large gold letters, and the whole turnout was so elaborately ornamented and bedizened that everybody stopped and gazed with wondering admiration. A bugle-player or a band of music always accompanied the great Gosling, and, of course, helped to attract the public attention to his establishment. At the turning of every street-corner your eyes rested upon “Gosling’s Blacking.” From every show-window gilded placards discoursed eloquently of the merits of “Gosling’s Blacking.” The newspapers teemed with poems written in its praise, and showers of pictorial handbills, illustrated almanacs, and tinseled souvenirs, all lauding the virtues of “Gosling’s Blacking,” smothered you at every point.

The celebrated originator of delineations, “Jim Crow Rice,” made his first appearance at Hamblin’s Bowery Theatre at about this time. The crowds which thronged there were so great that hundreds from the audience were frequently admitted upon the stage. In one of his scenes, Rice introduced a negro boot-blacking establishment. Gosling was too “wide awake” to let such an opportunity pass unimproved, and Rice was paid for singing an original black Gosling ditty, while a score of placards bearing the inscription, “Use Gosling’s Blacking,” were suspended at different points in this negro boot polishing hall. Everybody tried “Gosling’s Blacking;” and as it was a really good article, his sales in city and country soon became immense; Gosling made a fortune in seven years, and retired but, as with thousands before him, it was “easy come easy go.” He engaged in a lead-mining speculation, and it was generally understood that his fortune was, in a great measure, lost as rapidly as it was made.

Here let me digress, in order to observe that one of the most difficult things in life is for men to bear discreetly sudden prosperity. Unless considerable time and labor are devoted to earning money, it is not appreciated by its possessor; and, having no practical knowledge of the value of money, he generally gets rid of it with the same ease that marked its accumulation. Mr. Astor gave the experience of thousands when he said that he found more difficulty in earning and saving his first thousand dollars than in accumulating all the subsequent millions which finally made up his fortune. The very economy, perseverance, and discipline which he was obliged to practice, as he gained his money dollar by dollar, gave him a just appreciation of its value, and thus led him into those habits of industry, prudence, temperance, and untiring diligence so conducive and necessary to his future success.

Mr. Gosling, however, was not a man to be put down by a single financial reverse. He opened a store in Canajoharie, N.Y., which was burned, and on which there was no insurance. He came again to New York in 1839, and established a restaurant, where, by devoting the services of himself and several members of his family assiduously to the business, he soon reveled in his former prosperity, and snapped his fingers in glee at what unreflecting persons term “the freaks of Dame Fortune.” He is still living in New York, hale and hearty at the age of seventy. Although called a “French” blacking-maker, Mr. Gosling is in reality a Dutchman, having been born in the city of Amsterdam, Holland. He is the father of twenty-four children, twelve of whom are still living, to cheer him in his declining years, and to repay him in grateful attentions for the valuable lessons of prudence, integrity, and industry through the adoption of which they are honored as respectable and worthy members of society.

I cannot however permit this chapter to close without recording a protest in principle against that method of advertising of which Warren’s on the Pyramid is an instance. Not that it is a crime or even an immorality in the usual sense of the words; but it is a violent offense against good taste, and a selfish and inexcusable destruction of other people’s enjoyments. No man ought to advertise in the midst of landscapes or scenery, in such a way as to destroy or injure their beauty by introducing totally incongruous and relatively vulgar associations. Too many transactions of the sort have been perpetrated in our own country. The principle on which the thing is done is, to seek out the most attractive spot possible⁠—the wildest, the most lovely, and there, in the most staring and brazen manner to paint up advertisements of quack medicines, rum, or as the case may be, in letters of monstrous size, in the most obtrusive colors, in such a prominent place, and in such a lasting way as to destroy the beauty of the scene both thoroughly and permanently.

Any man with a beautiful wife or daughter would probably feel disagreeably, if he should find branded indelibly across her smooth white forehead, or on her snowy shoulder in blue and red letters such a phrase as this: “Try the Jigamaree Bitters!” Very much like this is the sort of advertising I am speaking of. It is not likely that I shall be charged with squeamishness on this question. I can readily enough see the selfishness and vulgarity of this particular sort of advertising, however.

It is outrageously selfish to destroy the pleasure of thousands, for the sake of a chance of additional gain. And it is an atrocious piece of vulgarity to flaunt the names of quack nostrums, and of the coarse stimulants of sots, among the beautiful scenes of nature. The pleasure of such places depends upon their freedom from the associations of everyday concerns and troubles and weaknesses. A lovely nook of forest scenery, or a grand rock, like a beautiful woman, depends for much of its attractiveness upon the attendant sense of freedom from whatever is low; upon a sense of purity and of romance. And it is about as nauseous to find “Bitters” or “Worm Syrup” daubed upon the landscape, as it would be upon the lady’s brow.

Since writing this I observe that two legislatures⁠—those of New Hampshire and New York⁠—have passed laws to prevent this dirty misdemeanor. It is greatly to their credit, and it is in good season. For it is matter of wonder that some more colossal vulgarian has not stuck up a sign a mile long on the Palisades. But it is matter of thankfulness too. At the White Mountains, many grand and beautiful views have been spoiled by these nostrum and bedbug souled fellows.

It is worth noticing that the chief haunts of the city of New York, the Central Park, has thus far remained unviolated by the dirty hands of these vulgar advertisers. Without knowing anything about it, I have no doubt whatever that the commissioners have been approached often by parties desiring the privilege of advertising within its limits. Among the advertising fraternity it would be thought a gigantic opportunity to be able to flaunt the name of some bug-poison, fly-killer, bowel-rectifier, or disguised rum, along the walls of the Reservoir; upon the delicate stonework of the Terrace, or the graceful lines of the Bow Bridge; to nail up a tin sign on every other tree, to stick one up right in front of every seat; to keep a gang of young wretches thrusting pamphlet or handbill into every person’s palm that enters the gate, to paint a vulgar sign across every gray rock; to cut quack words in ditch-work in the smooth green turf of the mall or ball-ground. I have no doubt that it is the peremptory decision and clear good taste of the Commissioners alone, which have kept this last retreat of nature within our crowded city from being long ago plastered and daubed with placards, handbills, signboards and paint, from side to side and from end to end, over turf, tree, rock, wall, bridge, archway, building and all.