In 1884, a 3-year-old French-Canadian boy, Philippe Nicol, began working in circus sideshows. He was a dwarf, and like some other little people of his era he was hired as a “human oddity” to be gawked at by the public. Eventually, he also appeared in vaudeville acts. Although Philippe traveled under the care of a relative until he was 15 years old, life on the road was surely difficult.
After the Nicol family immigrated from Quebec to Manchester, N.H., in 1887, Philippe was able to spend part of each year in school. In 1903 he temporarily stopped traveling and opened a candy and variety store on Manchester’s West Side. In 1906 he married another dwarf and circus performer, Rose Dufresne, of Lowell, Mass. The couple moved to Lowell in 1910 where Philippe operated a variety store for a time before he and Rose began performing again in circuses.
In 1913 the couple moved to Montreal. Known affectionately as Count Philippe and Countess Rose Nicol, they became local celebrities. They sold tobacco and candles, and also likely sold sweets, as they contributed 2,000 pounds of candy to a children’s picnic sponsored by the Montreal police in August 1918. They attended the picnic, where they greeted the delighted children.
Philippe and Rose’s dream was to build a lavish “palace” in the center of the city’s beautiful La Fontaine Park to show off their financial success and their celebrity as former circus performers. As the city would not grant them permission to do this, they instead constructed a modest three-story townhouse on a street near the park. The Nicols lived on the first floor, and the top two floors were rented out.
The Nicols designed their apartment to accommodate their small size — Philippe was 36 inches tall and Rose 40 inches tall. The ceilings were lower than normal, and everything in the house was made-to-order in small scale including the furniture, appliances, grandfather clock, lamps, mirrors, and a billiard table. The Nicols, who billed themselves as “The King and Queen of all Midgets,” opened their Palais des Nains, the “Midgets Palace,” to the public. Although today people with dwarfism prefer that the term “midget” not be used to describe them, in the Nicols’ time the term was commonly used, especially in the entertainment world.
Tourists paid a fee to stand in the entrance hall, which had a normal-sized ceiling, where they would look into the tiny rooms to see the Nicols, dressed in fine clothing, go about their daily activities. There was some interaction between the Nicols and the visitors, and Rose would occasionally entertain them on her tiny piano. The house was open every day from at least 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
From the Midgets Palace, which the Nicols marketed as “the only one of its kind in the Universe,” Philippe operated “the best and the biggest doll hospital in Canada.” He repaired dolls, and sold doll clothing and shoes. The couple also sold postcards and calendars with photos of themselves and their unique home.
On Sept. 19, 1926, the fondest hope of the Nicols was realized when their son Philippe, Jr. was born. Rose, then 39 years old, was attended by five physicians who delivered the baby by Caesarean section. The birth was considered a miracle, as it was rare in those days for a dwarf couple to have children. When Philippe, Jr. was a few months old it became apparent that he was also a dwarf. But his father did not want him to be forced to endure life in the circus or on the vaudeville stage. The following statement was included in a souvenir booklet sold at the Midgets Palace: “The Count is very firm in his desire to save his son from the hardships encountered by himself. He wishes to make of him a serious, honest and charitable citizen, which is not common nowadays … He firmly expects for the next twenty years to put forth all his efforts to attain this object and nothing will be spared…to make Nicol, Jr. a real he-man.”
But it was inevitable that Philippe, Jr., called “Prince Philippe” and “The Rare Child” would become one of the most interesting attractions of the Midgets Palace.