John Bonnin seems to have been a colourful character in the mid 18th century around New York and Philadelphia, where his activities as a showman (and hints of an earlier career as a privateer) attracted much public attention. He went to great lengths to publicise his activities in the press, which is why we still have the information that follows.
On March 8th 1748-9, the local press in the town of Jamaica, Long Island, reported:
“The common topics of discourse here since the coming of Mr. Bonnin are entirely changed. Instead of the common chat, nothing is scarce mentioned now, but the most entertaining parts of Europe, which are represented so lively in Mr. Bonnin’s curious Prospects. He proposed to tarry here but one week, but his lectures and Views have been so satisfactory that crowded concourses of people are daily spectators. He tarries here another week, but designs for Flushing on Saturday next and Hempstead on Saturday after.”(1)
The “Views” were slides displayed using John Bonnin’s “Philosophical Optical Machine”(2) (basically a magic lantern ), which he is said to have imported from London, complete with the slides. The magic lantern(3) had been developed from the original “peepshow” device, where the viewer looked into the box to see the scene. The magic lantern was equipped with a convex mirror which could project the images onto a screen. The slides were painted either onto glass, or onto oiled paper, which may then have been protected with a glass cover. In those pre-electric days, the light was provided by candles or oil lamps, so I imagine that the apparatus could get quite hot. There was usually a chimney to take away the smoke.
Much of the material given below is taken from a book called Social New York under the Georges, 1714-1776 : houses, streets, and country homes, with chapters on fashions, furniture, china, plate, and manners (4), which was written by Esther Singleton around 1902.
“We hear that Mr. Bonnin has got one of the greatest curiosities in nature. This wonderful phenomenon is beyond our power to describe as fully as to communicate an adequate idea of it. It is a crab fish, with most of its shell on both sides, preserved in its natural colour, and the spawn is petrified into a hard stone.”
This, however, paled before the next exhibit which was offered in in 1751 :
“To be seen at the House of John Bonnin next door to Mr. Peter Brewer’s near the new Dutch Church a curious live Porcupine of various colours; a creature arm’d with Darts, which resemble Writing Pens, tho’ of different Colours, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or
attack’d tho’ otherwise of great good Humour and Gentleness. He will eat in the Presence of any Person, and is justly Esteemed a great Rarity in these Parts.”
The “House” referred to was probably not a private dwelling, but more likely an Inn, Tavern or Coffee House where such things could be displayed. In a large settlement such as New York, where John Bonnin expected to stay for some time, he may have set up his own premises. The very rich might ask for a private showing to be brought to their own residence, if the show was sufficiently portable. Alternatively, they could book a private viewing.
On Jan. 7, 1749, he promised that he would show seven English cathedrals ; and on the same day, he announced :
” The great wager depending between some English and French gentlemen of this city, viz., whether the English palaces, gardens, etc., or the French ones, are the finest and most magnificent, is to be decided at Mr. Bonnin’s room to-morrow if it proves good weather by a jury of twelve men who were never in Europe. This week twelve views of Venice not on the canals; next week twelve on the canals.” The following week
he gives twelve ships of all sizes in all stations of weather “and also prospects of Rome and Naples.”
He understood the art of advertising. In 1748, the following was printed :
” We hear that Mr. Bonnin is so crowded with company to view his perspectives that he can scarce get even so much time as to eat, drink, or say his prayers, from the time he gets out of bed till he repairs to it again ; and it is the opinion of some able physician that if he makes rich, it must be at the expense of the health of his body ; and of some learned divines, that it must be at the expense of the welfare of his poor soul. Nay, his own old shipmates, who went a privateering with him, swear he would have stood a better chance for a fair wind to the haven of rest, and would have come to port with more safety had he continued still aboard! They are a sett of sad dogs to talk so profanely of such a subject.”
A few weeks later, the papers announced :
” Mr. Bonnin intended to go to-day to Long Island, but the people of all ranks and ages crowded to see him in such numbers all the week, which encouragement, together with the cries, tears and prayers of the populace, as he passes along the streets, to continue another week longer in town, have at last prevailed upon him to defer his removal till next week.”
” It has now become the daily custom of our ladies of distinction to ask their husbands and sweethearts to treat them to a walk to Kensington, Hampton Court, Vaux Hall (sic), Ranelagh House and other grand palaces and gardens in and about London, as naturally as if they lived by the Royal Exchange or St. Paul’s; and, as in good weather they used to do, to treat them with a jaunt to Long Island or King’s Bridge. To enforce their arguments, they insist upon it that there is less danger and expence (sic) in visiting the former than the latter place, and abundance more pleasure and instruction. In short, there’s nobody can set up the least face for politeness and conversation without having been with Mr. Bonnin; and embellishing their discourses with making judicious and elaborate observations and criticisms on this, that, and the other building, improvement, or dress. So that instead of our travellers entertaining the ladies with their feigned and confused accounts of the fine palaces they have seen in England, the case is quite altered; for the ladies correct and often detect their false pretended description, and entertain them with a just, beautiful and regular one.”
The amusements he offered also extended to spectacles of a different nature:
1749 In November, John Bonnin advertised a contest in the New York Post Boy: “To be shot for at Capt. Benj. Kiersted’s … A Large Rose Diamond Ring, value £6. Each person who inclines to try his Skill … is to pay Twenty Shillings.” (5)
I have no idea where John Bonnin appeared from, or where he went to after this brief burst of activity in the limelight. Nor can I find any evidence of a relationship between John Bonnin of New York and any of the other Bonnins described on this site, either, although that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. He’s an intriguing man of mystery.
- Long Island Genealogy
- Inn Civility – Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society by Vaughn Scribner (page 40 refers)
- Magic Lantern – Wikipedia
- Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776 by Esther Singleton
- The Greater New York Sports Chronology by Jeffrey A. Kroessler