Scudder’s American Museum, in the former NYC poor house (via NYPL)
One of the first museums to draw the crowds in Manhattan was Scudder’s American Museum, which ran from 1810 to 1841.
First lodged in the city’s former almshouse, it was started by John Scudder with the acquisition of some smaller museum collections, including the Baker’s American Museum.
Eventually it relocated to a five-story building at Broadway and Ann Street, where patrons could pay a small price to see an 18-foot live snake, taxidermy dioramas, a two-headed lamb, magic lantern slides, bed sheets from Mary, Queen of Scots, and some macabre curios like a wax figure cut by a guillotine.
It was even open until 9 pm, to wander by candlelight.
As P. T. Barnum wrote in 1869: “People in all parts of the country had sent in relics and rare curiosities; sea captains, for years, had brought and deposited strange things from foreign lands; and besides all these gifts, I have no doubt that the previous proprietor had actually expended, as was stated, $50,000 in making the collection.”
In fact, Barnum was so impressed with the museum, he decided to buy it and transform it into the greatest spectacle the city had known.