(The following is an article written by Audrey Fischer, managing editor of the Library of Congress Magazine, and featured in the November/December 2015 issue. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
The Library’s food collections include once-edible artifacts.
On Feb. 10, 1863, an event occurred that caused a media sensation and distracted the war-weary nation from the bloody Civil War. On that day, showman P.T. Barnum hosted the wedding of two performers in his circus—the 2-foot-11-inch Charles Stratton (known professionally as General Tom Thumb) and the similarly sized Lavinia Warren.
The elaborate ceremony at New York’s Grace Episcopal Church was followed by a reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. Perched atop a grand piano, the couple greeted their guests, who included members of New York’s high society. Barnum sold tickets to the reception to the first 5,000 to apply. Tiffany and Co. provided a silver coach for the occasion. President Abraham Lincoln and wife Mary held a special reception for the newlyweds at the White House.
A once-edible artifact remains as a reminder of the occasion—a piece of the couple’s wedding cake is preserved in the Library’s Manuscript Division. The item came to the Library of Congress in the 1950s in the papers of actress Minnie Maddern Fiske and her husband, theater manager Harrison Grey Fiske. Tom Thumb’s widow sent the cake to Harrison Fiske in 1905, perhaps hoping that it would lead to stage work or some publicity for her autobiography published the following year. At the time, Fiske was editor of “The New York Dramatic Mirror.”
“The public are under the impression that I am not living,” she noted in her letter to Fiske, which accompanied the slice of cake. In 1885 she married Count Primo Magri—two inches shorter than her first husband. To support their lavish lifestyle, the couple continued to perform into their later years.
Recent “food finds” in the Library’s collections include a hand-made greeting card decorated with rice sent to civil rights activist Rosa Parks by her nephew and a candy conversation heart from the 1920s in the Coolidge-Pollard Families Papers—a collection related to the maternal side of President Calvin Coolidge’s family.