By Michael Schreiber
Jenny Lind was the first international superstar of the musical world. The frenzy over her visit to the United States in 1850 even surpassed that of the “British Invasion” of the Beatles a century later. Yet those who met the “Swedish Nightingale” described her as being incredibly modest and generous. She gave large sums of money to charities and the poor, and regularly gave free concerts at Swedish churches in America—including one at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church) in Queen Village.
Lind’s visit to this country was arranged by master showman Phineas T. Barnum. He offered Lind the unheard-of sum of $1000 for 150 concerts, plus a share of the profits. Barnum was at his newly opened museum in Philadelphia in February 1850 when he received word that Jenny Lind had agreed to his terms. But the showman had difficulty raising the capital for Lind’s tour. At the last minute, a Philadelphia minister, the Rev. Abel C. Thomas, lent Barnum the final $5000 that was needed.
Barnum initiated a massive publicity campaign. He devised a contest with a $200 prize for a theme song, “Greeting to America,” that Lind would sing upon her arrival. Several hundred librettos were submitted, and the prize was won by Chester County poet Bayard Taylor.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger headlined one article, “The Jenny Lind Fever,” and indeed, the newspapers steadily stoked the mania surrounding her U.S. tour. Jenny Lind perfume and hair pomade, available at Xavier Bazin’s perfumery on Chestnut St., were indicative of the merchandise that took advantage of her name. Sheet music for all of her songs was sold at “only six cents the sheet” from Ferrett & Co. on Eighth St.
Lind arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 16, 1850, after a grueling journey following concert appearances in New York and New England. She took passage on a ship down the Delaware River, disembarking north of Philadelphia at Tacony. There she boarded another steamer Barnum had chartered, the Edwin Forrest, which traveled only as far as Kensington, where a carriage waited to take her to Jones’s hotel on Chestnut Street. To avoid notice, she entered the hotel by the back door.
In the meantime, a huge crowd had gathered to greet her at the Walnut Street Wharf—her expected landing place. When fans learned that Lind had managed to avoid them, they packed the street in front of the hotel. Although it was late at night, they shouted for the singer to make an appearance.
The Philadelphia North American reported “the clamor was kept up until Jenny Lind herself appeared upon the piazza, led by Barnum. She walked up the railing, waved her handkerchief to the mob for a minute or two, covering her face with another.” In his later autobiography, however, Barnum revealed that he had staged a deception: Lind’s traveling companion, Katrina Ahmansen, had masqueraded as the singer on the balcony.
Lind’s initial performances were booked into the vast Chestnut Street Theatre. The Inquirer described the scene on Opening Night: “The spectacle was, indeed, fairy-like. The splendid dresses, the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, the eager expectation depicted on every countenance, the brilliant gas-lights, and the whisperings and buzzings of many voices served to produce an unwonted excitement.”
The music critic for the North American reported that the audience cheered as Jenny Lind entered and walked toward the footlights. After a number of low bows, her recitative to“ Come per me” began. However, “whether from a cold or the excitement of the occasion, there was a want of purity and clearness in Jenny Lind’s first utterances, which was evidently noticed by the whole house.”
In the second part of the concert, Lind and baritone Giovanni Belletti sang a duet from Rossini’s “Turco in Italia.” The North American stated, “It is in this piece that the first evidence was given by Miss Lind of those powers to which her eminence as a vocalist is due. … We felt for the first time how versatile were her vocal gifts—for here was a legitimate and artistic power, no trickery, no mere clap-trap.”
In his 1851 commemorative book, “Jenny Lind in America,” C.G. Rosenberg wrote: “The audience had been charmed out of its chilliness. … It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the greatest triumph which Jenny Lind had yet achieved upon this side of the Atlantic.”
“On the following Sunday,” Rosenberg continued, “a sensation, of no common character, was created amongst the congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Gloria Dei, in Swanson street—better known as the ‘Old Swedes’ Church—by Mdlle. Jenny Lind’s attendance on Divine worship within its walls. At the close of the service she received the greetings of numerous descendants of the pioneer emigrants from her own native land, who had settled on the banks of the Delaware, and were the original founders of the aged edifice, within whose walls she had bent in supplication.”
It is said that Lind climbed into the upper gallery of the church, constructed five years earlier, from which she sang, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” from George F. Handel’s “Messiah.”
In December, Lind returned to Philadelphia for a series of concerts at Musical Fund Hall. At that time, the pastor at Gloria Dei, the Rev. Jehu Curtis Clay, was instrumental in arranging a donation from the singer to the Southwark Soup Society.
Jenny Lind’s 1850 visit to Gloria Dei will be commemorated on June 8 by a concert at the church.