P.T. Barnum

—P.T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum – that’s P.T., to you and me – was the most remarkable entrepreneur and entertainer in 19th century America. He is an icon of American ingenuity and our patron saint of promotion, his story is a fascinating exploration of 19th century social, commercial, political and industrial history, and his tale begins long before his famous circus was created in 1872.

He was an entrepreneur, museum proprietor, business leader, politician, urban developer, community benefactor, philanthropist, temperance leader, emancipationist, lecturer and author. Barnum was committed to the intellectual and cultural development of society, and was a voice for the pursuit of freedom and choice.  Discover many fascinating and little-known facts about P.T. Barnum in our Emmy Award-nominated video series, Showman’s Shorts, available on the Barnum Museum’s YouTube channel.


The circus was P.T. Barnum’s retirement project – Barnum was a well-established entertainer and 61 years old when he began the “Greatest Show On Earth.”

Charles Stratton, a dwarf who performed under the stage name General Tom Thumb, was a distant relative of Barnums and became a star under his management. The two men became great friends, and Tom Thumb’s success was so massive that he not only made a fan of Queen Victoria, but his 1863 wedding was the hot celebrity event of New York City.

Though he was a Democrat in his youth, Barnum embraced moral causes as he grew in age and legacy. A temperance activist, Universalist Christian and advocate for equality, Barnum pulled his candidacy for Connecticut governor in 1853 due to the expansion of slavery into the western territory. He was a member of Connecticut’s General Assembly twice, and also served as mayor of the city of Bridgeport.

Barnum went to jail for libel for a story that was printed in his Herald of Freedom newspaper. He spent sixty days in jail in Danbury, Connecticut, had his jail cell decorated, continued producing the newspaper, and in true Barnum style, threw a party and parade to celebrate the day of his release.

Barnum introduced fine arts to America by engaging the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to tour the United States, paying her an unheard-of $1,000 a night to rave reviews.

Barnum was the most famous man in America in the 19th century, perhaps even the world! He was a regular correspondent with famous world figures including Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Thomas Edison.

The American Museum, Barnum’s grand entertainment attraction, drew millions of visitors to the intersection of Broadway and Ann Streets in New York City (near the modern World Trade Plaza). Among the Museum’s many wondrous attractions was America’s first aquarium. Water was pumped from the East River into massive whale tanks in the basement.

Barnum created the 10,000-seat New York Hippodrome as a home for his circus venture, but you might know it by its later name: Madison Square Garden. Barnum had an office there until his death in 1891, and some of his last words are reported to have been the question: “…what were the receipts at the Garden?”

Thomas Edison captured P.T. Barnum’s voice on a wax cylinder, making his one of the very first voices to ever be preserved:

Listen Here

I wish to give my parting thanks to the British public, and to assure them that I shall ever gratefully cherish all pleasant memories of their kindness and hospitality, even higher than the pecuniary success with which they have crowned my efforts to please them. I thus address the world through the medium of the latest wonderful invention, Edison’s phonograph, so that my voice, like my great show, will reach future generations and be heard centuries after I have joined the great, and as I believe, happy majority.