Definition Of The Word Humbug

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 bank-notes, 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 pocket-book. 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 outre

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 business-men, 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


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


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

offence 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,


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 every

day 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 stone-work 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, sign-boards and paint, from side to side and from

end to end, over turf, tree, rock, wall, bridge, archway, building and