Tom Thumb’s Wedding Cake…Still at the Library, 159 Years Later

The population of New York, the city’s most prominent newspaper opined in February 1863, could be divided into two groups: the lucky few who witnessed the wedding festivities of Charles Stratton … and everyone else.

Stratton, then 25 years old and 35 inches tall, was one of the biggest stars of the mid-19th century. Performing in P.T. Barnum’s shows under the name Gen. Tom Thumb, Stratton enthralled audiences in America and Europe — he appeared before a delighted Queen Victoria — with his song and dance routines and impersonations.

Stratton’s wedding to his slightly smaller co-star, Lavinia Warren, was the event of the season. The city’s elite filled the pews of  the magnificent Grace Church. Outside, thousands filled Broadway or perched on rooftops, hoping for a glimpse of the happy couple.

When the newlyweds moved to the Metropolitan Hotel for the reception, the “breath-expurgating, crinoline-crushing, bunion-pinching mass,” as the New York Times put it, followed — in part because Barnum had sold 5,000 tickets to the event.

At the hotel, the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Stratton greeted guests from atop a piano, surrounded by a motherlode of silver wedding gifts, including a ruby-inlaid miniature horse and chariot specially made by Tiffany’s.

Today, the Library preserves a little slice of that glittering history. In the 1950s, the Manuscript Division acquired a piece of the wedding cake served at the Metropolitan as part of the papers of actress Minnie Maddern Fiske and her husband, Harrison Grey Fiske, the editor of a prominent theater publication.

A slice of wedding cake from the ceremony. Manuscript Division.

Stratton died in 1883, and Lavinia eventually married the equally diminutive Count Primo Magri, who was indeed Italian but not actually nobility. In 1905, Lavinia sent a letter to the Fiskes, accompanied by the slice of cake, hoping they could give her career a boost. “The public are under the impression that I am not living,” she wrote.

Lavinia kept working into her 70s, even appearing with Magri in a silent film, “The Lilliputian’s Courtship,” in 1915. Four years later, she died and was buried beside Stratton beneath a headstone that read simply, “His Wife.”

A century later, that small piece of cake, now dark and moldy, reminds of a bright, glamourous day in the lives of two remarkable people and their city.

Cover sheet of music, with a black and white sketch of the small bride and groom

Sheet music for “General Tom Thumb’s Grand Wedding March,” by E. Mack. Prints and Photographs Division.

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!

Hair! At the Library? Yes, and Lots of It

One of the Library’s most unusual holdings is hair — lots of it. The Library has locks and tresses and strands from people in the arts such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Walt Whitman and Edna St. Vincent Millay; presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Madison and Ulysses S. Grant; and any number of famous women, including Lucy Webb Hayes (first lady and spouse of President Rutherford B. Hayes); Confederate spy Antonia Ford Willard; Clare Boothe Luce and unidentified hair from Clara Barton’s diary. Nearly all of the hair stems from the 18th and 19th centuries, in the era before photographs were common and lockets of hair were seen as tokens that could be anything from romantic to momentous.

Lamont Dozier, Legendary Motown Songwriter and National Recording Registry Member, Dies at 81

  Lamont Dozier, one third of Motown’s key hit-writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, has died at 81. It’s difficult to imagine the soundtrack of the 1960s without him. I chatted with him earlier this year, when the trio’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” was inducted into the 2022 class of the National Recording Registry. Here’s the story […]

W.E.B. DuBois and The Brownies’ Book

Writer, scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois recognized the need for young African Americans to see themselves and their concerns reflected in print. The Brownies’ Book, a monthly magazine for the “Children of the Sun … designed for all children, but especially for ours,” was his response. Du Bois aimed to instill and reinforce pride in Black youth and to help Black families as they raised children in a segregated and prejudiced world. The Library has digitical copies of each magazine online.

Bill Russell: In His Own Words

Bill Russell, the legendary basketball player and civil rights stalwart who died Sunday at the age of 88, filmed an unforgettable conversation for the Civil Rights History Project, an oral history production by the Library and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, in 2013. It’s three hours and was conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. What comes through strongest is the rock-solid voice of Bill Russell, American icon, who learned from his grandfather to “don’t take nothing from nobody.”