The first wax museum in the United States was itself nearly lost to history.
The time when wax museums were at the forefront of the tourism industry in the US and Europe has long passed. There are some that still exist, but those that do don’t typically entertain huge crowds of admirers. On the other hand, a wax museum seems like a good fit in the nation’s oldest city, especially since most of St. Augustine’s attractions are decidedly old school and fairly low-tech.
Potter’s Wax Museum (31 Orange Street) is located very close to the Old City Gates, near the Castillo de San Marcos. The entrance is the Old Drugstore, itself a long-time attraction in the city. The drugstore and it’s walls of shelves filled with old remedies, nostrums and odd-ball items that you could buy in a pharmacy 100 years ago is simply the foyer of the wax museum.
The drugstore is a free attraction and it’s where you pay to see the wax figures. When you enter the wax museum, you step into a scene that looks much the way Potter’s Wax Museum has looked for decades. While there are some contemorary figures, don’t expect this to be the Hollywood Wax Museum or Madame Tussaud’s style with a lot of glitz and glam.
Potter’s is named after George L. Potter, who created the museum in St. Augustine in 1948. It may not seem like a big deal, but the humble beginnings of the museum after WWII was the first wax museum in the US. Madame Tussaud’s (the original location in London, England) was created over 100 years earlier and wax museums, which mostly displayed royalty, were common in the capitals of Europe. As a kid, George Potter was lucky to travel to Europe with his family, visiting many places including Madame Tussaud’s. Many years later he would use real estate earnings to create his wax museum.
The initial collection was created by the Gems London Wax Studio and shipped to St. Augustine to fill the museum located at 1 King Street in a building that faced the Ponce de Leon statue in the square in front of the Bridge of Lions. The museum prospered with the high quality of the figures and the prime location in a city that had long been a tourist destination. The 1950s were the golden age of Florida tourism and in a city where history is king, Potter’s had the royalty to go with it.
Eventually the museum boasted around 250 figures of famous men and women – from royalty, science, the arts, sports, religion, politics and business as well as the enevitable “Chamber of Horrors” that showed muderers and the murdered, both real and fictional.
For a time, during its most popular years, it was also known as Potter’s International Hall of Fame.
George Potter died in 1979. His family ran the museum until 1986, thought during those years they sold off a significant number of the wax figures as well as other items, including costumes. Apparently, there are still Potter figures in large homes from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach.
Eventually, the remainder of the collection was purchased by Potter’s former curator Dottie White. She moved the museum to 17 King Street, just two blocks away from its original location. In 2013 it was moved to the Old Drug Store location.
The collection is currently in a good, but less-than-grand, facility. There is excellent staff that can tell you about Potter’s history and what exactly a wax figure is and how it’s made. They have a small studio where they do repairs on figures as well.
The museum is a fascinating glimpse of an older tourist attraction. For those who love history, Potter’s Wax Museum has in it figures from history. Add to that the look and feel of the place and the history of the museum in general. People have been enjoying this type of attraction for a couple hundred years.