Meet Jenny Lind, one of America's first female celebrities

By Regan Shrumm
Illustration of Jenny Lind

Long before Hollywood actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn became iconic stars, popular female opera singers of the early to mid-19th century were among the first American celebrities. One of those early American stars was Jenny Lind, nicknamed the "Swedish Nightingale." Just as Monroe's plunging necklines and slinky dresses cast her image as a curvaceous 1950s ideal, and Hepburn's pantsuits and structured shoulder pads cast her with self-confidence and athleticism, Lind's paper dolls showed how the world cast the singer.

Black and white illustration of woman with her hair in an up-do with flowers. Dress is off-the-shoulder style, short sleeved. Her hands are place peacefully one and top of the other.

Born in Sweden in 1820, Lind had traveled across Europe singing soprano since the age of 11. By the time Lind was 28, she was already set to retire from the operatic stage. The audience for Lind's farewell performance included Queen Victoria, who presented the singer with a gem-encrusted nightingale. While she was the darling of Europe, in 1849 almost no one in the United States knew who Lind was.

Black and white portrait of man wearing bowtie, bald on top. Framed in blue.

By September 1850, however, she was one of the most famous and celebrated women in America, thanks to entrepreneur and showman P. T. Barnum. At his American Museum in New York, Barnum had showcased unique entertainers such as the 25-inch-tall Charles Sherwood Stratton, under the stage name Tom Thumb, but also used his lecture room to feature instructive and moral dramas, making a case for entertainment as an uplifting, positive force in American life. Barnum became convinced that Jenny Lind could not only help him make that case, but also make a fortune.

After her retirement, Lind had been offered several singing tours around the world. But Barnum alone offered Lind a contract that allowed her to choose her own program and musical associates. He also offered to pay her $1,000 per performance, up to $150,000 for a national tour, helping Lind achieve her dream of opening a musical academy for girls in Stockholm. She signed an 18-month contract with Barnum, and eventually performed 150 concerts throughout the United States.

But what was American celebrity culture like back in the mid-19th century?

Though Barnum had not even heard Lind sing before until the first night of the tour in New York City, the businessman created much fanfare in order to attract crowds before the singer arrived. Barnum published several announcements of Lind's arrival in newspapers, advertising the singer's philanthropic nature.

Barnum also created publicity through public events, such as auctioning off tickets to Lind's concerts, which drove up the price from an average of $6.38 per ticket to over $200 for Lind's New York debut. The showman even held a poetic competition, which would furnish the lyrics for a new song that Lind would sing throughout her tour.

Yellow $7 ticket

This hype prompted more than 30,000 people to witness Lind's steamship arrival into the New York harbor. There were reports that hotel maids were selling Lind's hair after stealing it from the singer's brush, and that men were kissing gloves Lind threw out to the crowd. Promotional and souvenir consumer products contributed to "Lindomania," as Jenny Lind gloves, bonnets, hats, shawls, chairs, pianos, cigars, and even paper dolls were sold throughout the country.

Box of paper dolls

This set of paper dolls contains one female figure and a set of 10 costumes, each representing a different opera character. Lind's name and image can be found both inside and outside the box. While homemade paper dolls have a long history, the first manufactured paper doll was the London toy firm S & J Fuller's "Little Fanny," produced in 1810. Celebrity paper dolls soon followed in the 1830s, with the Lind dolls among the first.

Objects depicting the singer often ascribed values to her. The majority of the products were designed for middle-class households and portrayed Lind with purity, humility, and charity. Often Lind was shown on these objects shyly turned away from the viewer, plainly dressed, or even next to a cross. When displayed at home, these Lind objects could connect the owner's moral character to that attributed to the singer.

Paper doll dress. Red with white lace.

However, this Jenny Lind paper doll has ornate costumes—unlike the actual singer who chose to perform in a simple white dress throughout her American tour. The elaborate clothing of this paper doll could be an allusion to the singer's European heritage, at a time when Renaissance culture was popular.

Paper doll in white

Other than maintaining her trademark hairstyle, many representations of Jenny Lind are disparate. In fact, the Lind paper doll features blond hair rather than the singer's brunette locks.

In portraits, Lind appeared as an average bourgeois female, not a world-renowned celebrity. Her clothing and makeup were plain. In fact, Lind supporter and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis complained that the likeness of Lind was never quite like "the picture in our mind's eye." Perhaps this was because Jenny Lind was a woman to whom American audiences could relate and could even aspire to be. Therefore, images of Lind became more representational of an idealized respectable woman, whom one could project values onto, rather than realistic portraits of the singer.

Regan Shrumm is an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She recently finished her master's degree in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria.