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Mrs. Jarley’s Wax Works

Work made of wax; especially, a figure or figures formed of wax, in imitation of real beings. — Webster, 1882

Mrs. Jarley’s wax “figgers” were exhibited in the skating rink last Thursday evening to a large and appreciative audience. The several figgers performed their parts well as did Mr. and Mrs. Jarley. Receipts were $25 for the Congregational Church. – March 21, 1885, De Smet Leader

After Mrs. Jarley and her wax figures was performed to rave reviews west of De Smet in Iroquois in 1884, Mary Drake, wife of southern Kingsbury County minister, Reverend Andrew J. Drake, agreed to be in charge of a similar performance in De Smet during the spring of 1885. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder includes wax figures as one of the literary society events held at the school or church during the winter of 1881-1882, it’s hard to know if there had been an earlier waxworks show presented (due to the lack of archived Kingsbury County newspapers for the early years, where such an event might have made the local news) or if Drake’s 1885 waxworks was the one Laura remembered. In March 1885, Laura Ingalls was still attending school in De Smet and was being courted by Almanzo Wilder. She had not yet begun to teach the Wilkin School’s spring term. See Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 19, “The Whirl of Gaiety.”

Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks was created by Charles Dickens as a small part of The Old Curiosity Shop (see Chapters 27-28), which was published as a book in 1841 after having been previously shared as 88 weekly installments in Dickens’ periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. In the story, Nell Trent and her grandfather, travel briefly with Mrs. Jarley, the proprietor of a traveling waxworks show, which in turn had been inspired by Madame Tussaud’s famous wax models and London museum of the 1830s, featuring wax figures of grotesques as well as famous figures. Mrs. Jarley’s figures were on display on raised platforms behind a velvet rope, and were described one-by-one as they are pointed out.

George Bradford Bartlett (1832-1896) was a well-known Concord, Massachusetts, literary figure who was friends with more widely known authors of the area, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He wrote for Youth’s Companion, a publication mentioned in the Little House books. Considered the unofficial “host of Concord,” Bartlett promoted Concord tourism and published the Concord Guide Book in 1880. He and his friends – including Louisa May Alcott – were active in amateur theater, and performed to raise money for antislavery and soldiers’ aid causes at the time; Alcott used the idea of youngsters performing plays and tableaux in her books. Bartlett published Mrs. Jarley’s Far-Famed Collection of Waxworks (shown above), the title going on to explain that the waxworks were “performed by amateurs under his direction for charitable purposes in most of the cities of the United States.” In 1875, Bartlett published Parlor Amusements for the Young Folks, containing a chapter on Mrs. Jarley. The characters included were said to have been hand-picked by Louisa May Alcott, according to the Springfield, Massachusetts, Daily Republican of February 2, 1865.

While Tussaud’s and Dickens’ wax figures were still, Bartlett’s are always animated pantomimes by costumed players, and upon being touched or wound up by Mrs. Jarley, they spring into their clock-work waxy action. Waxworks performances were wildly popular entertainments, a church-approved, harmless way to earn money for good causes. In Little Town on the Prairie, Wilder describes the movements of George Washington, Daniel Boone, Queen Elizabeth, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Do you know who Wilder said portrayed Mrs. Jarley? Only Queen Elizabeth appears in the published book.

“Mrs. Jarley’s” opening speech is given below. To see the entire volume for yourself, click HERE.

Mrs. Jarley’s Opening Speech. Ladies and Gentlemen: You here behold Mrs. Jarley! one of the most remarkable women of the world, who has traveled all over the country with her curious Collection of Waxworks. These figures have been gathreed, at great expense, from every clime and country, and are here shown together for the first time. I shall describe each one of them for your benefit, and shall order my assistants to bring some of them forward, so you can see them to advantage. After I have given you the history of each one of this stupendous Collection, I shall have each one of them wound up, for they are all fitted with clockwords inside, and they can thus go through the same motions they did when living. In fact, they do their movements so naturally ,that many people have supposed them to be alive, but I assure you that they are all made of wood and wax, blockheads every one. Without further prelude, I shall now introduce to your notice each one of my figures, beginning, as usual, with the last one first.

Wouldn’t it be great to see a waxworks performance featuring characters from the Little House books? Carrie Ingalls banging her spoon, Mrs. Bouchie raising and lowering her butcher knife, Mr. Boast’s pantomimed contagious laughter, Cap Garland giving us the look that made the railroader back down, Charles Ingalls playing his fiddle…


Mrs. Jarley’s Wax Works (LTP 19; PG)
     Gerald Fuller portrays Mrs. Jarley at waxworks performance (LTP 19)
     waxworks / wax figures (LTP 19; PG)