Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whose purity of voice and natural singing style earned her the nickname “the Swedish nightingale,” made her American debut at the Castle Garden Theatre in New York City on September 11, 1850. The appearance inaugurated a ninety-three-stop American tour which was arranged by showman and entertainment entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum. The tour came on the heels of a fantastically successful string of appearances in England where the large packed-in crowds gave rise to the term, “Jenny Lind crush.”
The great event of the evening…was Jenny Lind’s appearance and her complete triumph. She has a most exquisite, powerful and really quite peculiar voice, so round, soft and flexible…
Queen Victoria’s Journal, May 4, 1847
Jenny Lind was born Johanna Maria Lind on October 6, 1820 in Stockholm, Sweden. She made her debut in the opera Der Freischütz in Stockholm in 1838. Her fame grew in the mid-1840s as she made a series of successful appearances in Germany and Austria. In May 1847 she made her first appearance on a London stage, and it was in England that her status as a “celebrity” reached full force. In 1849, Lind decided to stop performing in operas and instead continued in her career as a recitalist and an oratorio singer.
Nearly ninety years after Jenny Lind’s tour of the United States, Mrs. Isabell Barnwell still remembered the sensation created by the singer’s 1850-51 tour. Of growing up in Hamilton County, Florida during the Civil War period, she recalled:
Music was a delight to all of us…We four sisters used to sing a great deal…We kept up with the music of the times, having quite a stock of sheet music on hand…I have several of those old volumes now, one composed entirely of Jenny Lind’s repertoire when she made her long-remembered American appearance.
[Mrs. Isabell Barnwell]. Rose Shepherd, interviewer; Jacksonville, Florida, February 6, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Lind’s renditions of popular songs met with great acclaim and helped make her one of the few opera singers to earn a large popular following. Fashionable new polkas and waltzes were choreographed and given her name. The “Jenny Lind Polka,” performed by fiddler John Selleck and recorded in 1939 in Camino, California, is a testament to Lind’s enduring influence on the popular imagination.
The “Jenny Lind Polka” and “Jenny Lind’s Set of Waltz Quadrilles” are described in a popular dance manual published in 1858, Howe’s Complete Ball-room Hand Book. This is just one of the many nineteenth-century dance and ballroom etiquette manuals included in the collection, An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920. Browse the Contributors list for author, title, and publication information for the 210 books included in the collection.
The Library’s collections are a rich resource for the study of popular entertainment from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- Search the collections on nineteenth century, or on dance terms, such as, polka, waltz, quadrille, or cotillion to find a treasure trove of information on dancing, manners, forms of courtship, and social life of the 1830s to 1880s.
- Search on Jenny Lind or on a year such as 1850 in Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922 to find popular songs from the time of Jenny Lind’s American debut.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell is a collection of folk songs recorded in the 1930s. Many of these songs date back to earlier periods. To find a sampling of popular songs of Jenny Lind’s era, search this collection of recordings on terms such as Anglo-American dance, polka, waltz, or the more general term dance.
- Sample a collection of motion pictures, playscripts, theater playbills and programs dating from the turn of the century. Browse the subject index of the American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920 collection which also includes material on the popular illusionist Harry Houdini.