This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Daniel Bowen: Boston's Pioneer Museumkeeper
Contemporary Boston is a city of many great museums.
The history of museumkeeping in the hub had its modest beginnings in 1791, with the arrival from Philadelphia of one Daniel Bowen, age thirty-one, a close friend of the patriot-painter Charles Willson Peale, the nation’s pioneer museumkeeper.
It has been suggested that Bowen left Philadelphia to avoid competing with his good friend. But whereas Peale’s contributions to the field of museumkeeping have been widely heralded by historians, those of Bowen have received scant attention.
The details of Bowen’s early life are obscure. One source refers to him as “Daniel Bowen, sea fighter of the Revolution, who had been in and about [Philadelphia] with a waxworks show after the peace, intent upon making his fortune.”
In addition to wax figures, Bowen brought to Boston several canvasses by the recently deceased English painter Robert Edge Pine (1730-88), as well as ample financial resources, which he may have gained from Revolutionary War privateering activities.
That he was financially well off is demonstrated by his purchase, shortly after his arrival, of a nine acre estate, Lime Grove, in the part of Cambridge that in 1807 became the town of Brighton. Since he apparently never owned a residence in the city proper, Bowen may be accounted one of Boston’s earliest suburban commuters.
Museumkeeping was then a lot less specialized than it is today. The nation’s earliest museums included everything from paintings, to waxen figures, to stuffed animals and birds, to public lectures and performances, to animal and variety acts---all manner of exotica mixed together for the edification and diversion of an entertainment-starved public.
David Bowen’s museum had its modest beginnings in an exhibit of wax figures and paintings that he mounted in 1791 at the American Coffee House, a popular tavern located on the north side of State Street, opposite the intersection of Kilby Street.
The waxen figures displayed in this first exhibit included representations of Washington, Franklin, and John Adams. That of local favorite Adams, had “on either side of him liberty with staff and cap and Justice with sword and balance.” David and Goliath were the subject of another waxen display, with the figure of Goliath standing some twelve feet high.
As more space became available, figures representing “The Sleeping Nymph” and “The Salem Beauty” as well as characters from popular literature were added to Bowen’s waxworks. By the mid-1790s, with public outrage against Jacobin France at an all-time high, figures were added showing the condemned French King Louis XVI bidding farewell to his family, as well as that of a man being guillotined.
Space in the American Coffee House being limited, it was not long before Bowen moved his collection to more ample quarters in a hall on the top floor of a schoolhouse on nearby Hollis Street.
Museumkeeping was a lucrative profession only if the public could be induced to make repeated visits. This meant a constant addition of new exhibits, which required additional space. Thus Bowen moved his establishment a third time in 1795, to a “large and elegant hall” at the corner of Bromfield and Tremont Streets, opposite Paddock’s Mall, which fronted the Granary Burying Ground, a popular promenade of the day.
One of the principal attractions of the museum’s new Tremont Street facility was a huge painting showing “Columbia,” symbol of the republic, mourning the ravages of the war then being waged between Britain and France, a conflict highly damaging to oceangoing trade, which was the economic lifeblood of Boston. Mr. Bowen’s Museum, as it was commonly called, was renamed “The Columbian” in 1801, possibly at the time of the dedication of this massive canvass.
However, there was much more to the Columbian Museum than waxen figures and a picture gallery. Public entertainments and lectures were also staged, including even occasional dramatic performances and variety acts.
One exhibit, more suggestive of P. T. Barnum than the sedate offerings of a modern museum, featured a bibulous elephant who consumed vast quantities of spiritous liquor, the museum’s advertising assuring the public that “thirty bottles of porter, of which he draws the corks himself, is not an uncommon allowance.” All of this, needless to say, occurred in the days before the establishment of the MSPCA!
Despite such vulgarities, Bowen’s Museum is said to have had a significant influence on the history of American painting. The works of art on display there, especially those of Robert Edge Pine, formed the only public art gallery in Boston. Art historians credit this collection with influencing three major painters: Washington Allston, the great Romantic painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, better known as the inventor of the telegraph, and Edward Greene Malbone, a miniaturist of note, all of whom resided in the Boston area in the 1790s.
Another great artistic contribution that Daniel Bowen rendered Boston lay in inducing his nephew, Abel Bowen, a highly talented wood engraver, to move here from New York in 1812. Abel’s first workshop in Boston was established in the Columbian Museum, and several of his earliest works were created to advertise museum exhibits and performances. For the next almost 40 years, Abel Bowen created a series of handsome wood engravings of Boston’s principal landmarks that comprise an important part of the city’s historical legacy.
On January 15, 1803, the Columbian Museum’s Tremont Street building was destroyed in a spectacular fire that also consumed the entire collection. This conflagration was so huge that its glow could be seen from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, seventy miles away. David Bowen, however, demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of this frightful disaster, for within five months his Columbian Museum was back in business on the second floor of a building on Milk Street, opposite the Old South Church.
This was but a temporary home, however. Wishing to reestablish his business on Tremont Street, near the mall, Bowen proceeded to build a five-story brick structure on a lot east of the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. His partner in this venture was W.M.S. Doyle. This large- structure, some 34 feet wide and 108 feet deep, rose to the commanding height of 84 feet. The top of the new Columbian Museum building featured an observatory, surmounted by a statue of Minerva. Bowen dedicated the impressive new edifice with much fanfare on November 27, 1806.
On January 16, 1807, less than two months after its opening, Bowen’s second Tremont Street headquarters suffered the same fate as its predecessor, destruction by fire. The flames that consumed the 1806 building were said to have erupted from equipment set up for a show called “The Phantasmagoria,” involving “spectreology and dancing witches.”
Even more tragic than the destruction of the museum and its contents, was the heavy loss of life the fire exacted. A large crowd of spectators had gathered in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground to watch its progress, when one of the walls of the museum collapsed into their midst, burying nine boys between the ages of ten and fifteen. In true Puritan fashion, Boston voices cried out that such displays as the “Phantasmagoria” were sacreligious, and that a wrathful God had exacted a fitful punishment on Boston.
Here again, however, David Bowen demonstrated incredible resilience, for by June 2, 1807 a new two-story Columbian Museum stood on the same site. Bowen operated this more modest facility in partnership with Doyle until 1815, at which point, for reasons not entirely clear, he sold his share of the museum, disposed of his Brighton estate, and left Boston permanently. Bowen was then 55 years of age when he departed Boston. The Museum survived under Doyle’s management for another ten years, at which point it was bought by its rival, the New England Museum.
As to David Bowen, Boston’s pioneer Museumkeeper, he lived on to the ripe old age of 96, dying in Philadelphia in 1856.