Source: The Early Life of Lexington [KY] before the Year 1820, Mary Estelle Delcamp, A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Transylvania College in Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts June, 1916

Altho important, the theater did not by any means furnish all the entertainment of the day. There were various types of amusement: some instructive, others awe-inspiring, and still others merely entertaining. Between the tumbling acts, feats of skill, balloon ascensions, fireworks, curious animals, strange experiments verging on magic, wax figures, circus, and the drama, the early Lexingtonian had plenty to occupy his spare moments.

Feats of personal were among the first performances given. In 1797 a new exhibition room was erected on the lot adjoining the Coleman Tavern. Here the spectators were entertained by wire dancing, balancing, tumbling, Chinese shades, and slack rope tumbling. The admission to the pit was three shillings, nine pence; to the gallery, 2 shillings, three pence. The doors were opened at sunset, and the performance began at dark. The patrons were requested to be in their places before the entertainment began, because of a lack of facilities for handling late-comers (May 31, 1797). Fourteen years later a traveling acrobat gave his performance at the Kentucky Hotel. The program consisted of three parts:

In part one he "imitated birds, chickens, red-bird, robin, thrush, and American mocking bird;"

In part two the chief feature was Herculean balancing, or ground equilibrium with pipes, plates, swords, dollars, glasses, chairs and tables. At the end of this act the artist proposed to give a fandango, in which he danced blindfolded over thirteen eggs.

In part three slack wire-walking was the principal event: walking the wire in full swing, seating a chair on the wire and playing a violin, going thru a hoop and numerous other achievements were a part of the actor’s accomplishments. As a grand finale, while remaining on the wire, the wandering performer claimed the ability to balance a plate on the hilt of a sword, the sword on the edge of a dollar, the dollar on the edge of a wine-glass – all spinning at the same time (Feb. 19, 1811).

By 1814 the performances of "grand feats of activity" were given outdoors in enclosed lots. The gates were opened at four-thirty in the afternoon, and the show began at five (June 6, 1814).

Another very popular form of entertainment was the balloon ascension. Later fireworks were combined with this. In 1797 an air-balloon, ten feet in diameter, was raised in the town by M. Lassellard, a Frenchman (September 27, 1797). Great increase in the magnificence and pretension of the exhibition was made by 1814, when Mr. Gaston furnished a grand display of fireworks, and the ascent of a balloon sixty feet in diameter. The fireworks shown consisted of a double sun of different colored fires, a lady’s fancy in grand Chinese fire, a Chinese vortex turning around a table, a combat of four butterflies in different colors, a combat of the sun and moon, and a general illumination of the Temple of Love. A special enclosure with benches, bar-and refreshment stand was erected for the occasion. No money was received at the door, but tickets could be obtained at Mr. John Postlethwait’s Tavern, Mr. William Essex’ Book Store, Mr. Mentell’s Dry-Goods Store, the office of the Kentucky Gazette, and the Bar of the enclosure (Mar. 4, 1814; Apr. 4, 1814). The same exhibitor, three years later, was anxious to establish a Vauxhall, or pleasure garden, of anyone would sell him a piece of property (July 12, 1817). In 1820 Mr. Vincent Dumilieu sent up a balloon twenty feet high and sixty in circumference, ornamented with appropriate emblems celebrating the battle of New Orleans (Jan. 7, 1820). It was a fine opportunity to appear patriotic, and at the same time make money.

In a frontier country the desire and curiosity to see strange animals and queer birds, or anything that is odd, is always intensified because of the remoteness from older civilisation. This was equally true of Lexington. How much excitement must have been aroused, when the news spread abroad that a real African lion. The largest African lion ever seen in America, was to be exhibited at Mr. Satterwhite’s Tavern every day except Sunday (Oct. 24, 1814)! In 1814 lovers of natural curiosity were informed that the giant Cassowara, of India, the Simia Papia, the only one in this country, and Barbary and African apes were to be seen at the residence of George Adams on Main Street (Oct. 24, 1814). The next year the attention of the public was called to a mammoth calf, five years old, and weighing about 3,000 pounds (Apr. 3, 1815; July 16, 1819). In 1819 the "renowned elephant" was exhibited in Mr. Usher’s Tavern (July 16, 1819). The regular price to all of these was twenty five cents for adults, and one half price for children (Oct. 24, 1814; Apr. 3, 1815).

The managers, performers and owners had many troubles in these days. In 1805 a great complaint was made that at the exhibition of curious experiments in natural philosophy a number of people without tickets came thru the back entrance and back windows; consequently many people with tickets had to be turned away. At this same very curious performance, an invisible lady in a glass box answered any questions asked her. The exhibition room was open every day from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon for those who wished to interview the invisible lady. The regular experiments took place every evening (Feb. 5, 1805; Feb. 12, 1805).

One of the most instructive kinds of entertainment was the exhibition of wax figures. The people were made familiar with the likenesses of the leading men of the nation: such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Burr, Hamilton, and many others. Usually the exhibitor rented for his display the ball room of the tavern where he was stopping (Mar. 12, 1805). The hours were from nine in the morning until nine in the evening. Admission for adults was fifty cents; for children, twenty five cents. In one instance a very appropriate sign was posted in a conspicuous place: "Use all the eyes of Argos, but not the hands of Briareus (Aug. 29, 1809; Mar. 12, 1805; Jan. 16, 1812). By 1815 a special museum had been established, and the wax figures were shown by candlelight (Nov. 20, 1815). Two years later in rooms under Mr. Darrack’s ball room on Short Street, patrons were instructed not only by wax figures, but also by a panoramic view of Rome with its environs, and the ruins of ancient Rome (Dec. 20, 1817).

The people of the Bluegrass owed their opportunity to hear good music to the Kentucky Musical Society, established with headquarters at Lexington (Nov. 21, 1805). In 1805 a gentleman recently arrived from England, assisted by Mr. Green of Lexington, gave the following concert:

Part One

David: Lamentation for his son Absolem….

Air: Angels ever bright and fair…Handel.

Duet: Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his ways.

An.: Pleasure my former ways resigning…Handel.

Anthem: Lord of all power and might…Mason.

Part Two.

From the Messiah of Handel.

Recitative: Comfort ye my people.

An.: Evry valley shall be exalted.

Recitative: Behold a virgin shall conceive.

An.: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.

Air: He shall feed his flock.

Recit: He was cut off out of the land of the living.

An.: But thou didst not leave his soul in Hell.

Air: I know that my Redeemer liveth.

Canon: Non Nobis Domine.

The announcement of this program said that the sacred music would be interspersed with pieces on the piano-forte. The concert was given in Mr. Bradley’s "long-room," and the admission charge was fifty cents (May 21, 1805).

The musicals presented by the Kentucky Musical Society consisted of vocal and instrumental numbers: songs, glees, rounds, and marches. The proceeds of the performances were used for charity (Dec. 26, 1806). An amusing instance in connection with one of these concerts is recorded in one of the issues of the Gazette. A person, who had forcibly entered the concert hall without having paid his fifty cents, was threatened by the paper with the publication of his name, if he did not come forward and pay the money of which he had defrauded the poor (Nov. 27, 1806). On one occasion the concert had to be postponed, because of the absence from town of several members of the society (Nov. 12, 1806).

In 1817 concerts were being given by individuals (Nov. 8, 1817). Two years later Signor Pucci and Mr. M’Elroy gave a musical performance on the grand harp with clarinet accompaniment. The former instrument had never been heard before In this section of the country (July 9, 1819). In the same year, on account of a distressing fire in the town, Mrs. McBride’s concert, which was to take place in the Mr. Jerome’s Hall, had to be postponed for a few days (Nov. 12, 1819).

While the grown people were having their concerts for their own delectation, the Lexington boy was by no means being neglected. In 1811 Mr. Rickett’s Circus of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York arrived in this section of the country. The only performance was held in the afternoon, at which grand feats of horsemanships leaping, tumbling, and sommersaults were witnessed (Dec. 10, 1811). Three years later the managers of the New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburg Circus announced, thru the columns of the paper, their fourth "representation" in the city of Lexington. The show of that year included the time-honored clown, the grand pyramid, and even a farcical scene. The hour of performance was five thirty in the afternoon (July 25, 1814). In 1815 the manager, Mr. Cayelano, boasted of a new company of equestrian and tranpolin exercisers from Europe (Apr. 17, 1815).

Transcribed February 2003 by pb

Back to Delcamp's Table of Contents

Back to Fayette County Genealogy and History