John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 10 May 1777


Philadelphia, 10 May, 1777.

THE day before yesterday, I took a walk with my friend Whipple to Mrs. Wells's, the sister of the famous Mrs. Wright, to see her wax-work. She has two chambers filled with it. In one, the parable of the prodigal son is represented. The prodigal is prostrate on his knees before his father, whose joy and grief and compassion all appear in his eyes and face struggling with each other. A servant maid, at the father's command, is pulling down from a closet shelf the choicest robes to clothe the prodigal, who is all in rags. At an outward door in a corner of the room, stands the brother, chagrined at this festivity, a servant coaxing him to come in. A large number of guests are placed round the room. In another chamber are the figures of Chatham, Franklin, Sawbridge, Mrs. Macauley and several others. At a corner is a miser, sitting at his table weighing his gold, his bag upon one side of the table and a thief behind him endeavoring to pilfer the bag.

There is genius as well as taste and art discovered in this exhibition. But I must confess the whole scene was disagreeable to me. The imitation of life was too faint, and I seemed to be walking among a group of corpses, standing, sitting and walking, laughing, singing, crying and weeping. This art, I think, will make but little progress in the world.

Another historical piece, I forgot, which is Elisha restoring to life the Shunamite's son. The joy of the mother upon discovering the first symptoms of life in the child is pretty strongly expressed. Dr. Chevot's wax-work in which all the various parts of the human body are represented for the benefit of young students in anatomy, and of which I gave you a particular description a year or two ago, were much more pleasing to me. Wax is much fitter to represent dead bodies than living ones.

Upon a hint from one of our commissioners abroad, we are looking about for American curiosities to send across the Atlantic, as presents to the ladies. Mr. Kittenhousc's planetarium, Mr. Arnold's collection of varieties in the virtuoso way, which I once saw at Norwalk in Connecticut, Narragansct pacing marcs, mooses, wood-ducks, flying squirrels, red-winged blackbirds, cranberries and rattlesnakes, have all been thought of. Is not this a pretty employment for great statesmen as we think ourselves to be r I Frivolous as it seems, it may be of some consequence. Little attentions have great influence. I think, however, we ought to consult the ladies upon this point. Pray what is your opinion ?

John Adams

Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife. Edited by His Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Volume I, 1841