The Man, The Myth,
P.T. Barnum; the name alone conjures ideas and imagination, preconceived notions of a man and philosophy. Known to most of the world as the ‘Great American Showman‘, for more than 150 years, the weight of the Barnum name has forced associations of humbug and merriment; the hyperbolic alongside the austere; provoked thought and invited controversy; welcomed the cynical and engaged and challenged the skeptic. With the burgeoning ambitions of a visionary, yet still a man of his times, P.T. Barnum embraced the dream of a truly democratic nation, and in doing so, inspired a new American society to reach beyond the limits of ordinary expectations, to see the world as a place of opportunity and wonder.
P.T. Barnum’s story begins long before his circus enterprise was created. Although the Barnum name lives on today as part of the American circus legacy, Mr. Barnum was 61 years old when the circus collaboration was presented to him. It was, in fact, his life-long love of his American Museum in New York City that drove his marketing machine and revealed a genius beyond the ideals of 19th century society. P.T. Barnum seized every moment and found promise in every opportunity. He crafted his life this way, taking chances, stimulating change, always giving back. He acknowledged that his actions forced ‘better elements in his character‘, reaping the benefits of his many successes, and at times, suffering for his miscalculations.
On the 5th of July 1810, the nation had just celebrated its 34th year and Phineas Taylor, later to be known as P.T., was born in Bethel, Connecticut. America was a fledging nation, raw from ongoing struggles for independence and hardened by years of reconstruction and expansion. Connecticut was grounded in Yankee heritage; stable, steadfast, frugal, and pious. Family farms rolled along the countryside, and small villages spotted the landscape.
The life of the Barnum family was humble. Despite lean family resources, P.T. Barnum began school by the age of six. As he progressed in years, he exhibited great aptitude for mathematics, and used “head-work” as his method for escaping egregious farming chores. Although Barnum’s attitude toward farm life-style was not favorable, he found invention in traditional work and by the age of twelve owned a sheep and a calf, sold cherry-rum to soldiers, and was hired to help herd a cattle drive to Brooklyn, New York. This pilgrimage to the city proved to be a life defining adventure for young Barnum, and as he became an adult, he found himself exploring the vast diversities of the flourishing metropolis, uncovering extraordinary opportunities awaiting his discovery.
It “was clear to my mind that my proper position in the busy world was not yet reached. I had displayed the faculty of getting money, as well as getting rid of it; but the business for which I was destined…had not yet come to me.” P.T. Barnum
Barnum’s American Museum
America was a new and culturally emerging nation. Amusements as we know them today did not exist. The concept of public entertainment was perceived as questionable and even considered inappropriate as Americans aspired to the highest standards of moral and civil behavior. On January 1, 1842, P.T. Barnum challenged this popular social ideology by opening his American Museum on lower Broadway in New York City. Promoting the Museum as a place for family entertainment, enlightenment and instructive amusement, Barnum’s American Museum became a shrine for advancing public knowledge of fine arts, music, literature and the marvels of nature, showcasing natural curiosities alongside artistic and historic exhibitions. Barnum’s American Museum quickly became the cultural hub of New York, claiming its place as the city’s most popular attraction for 23 years.
From 1842 until 1865, the American Museum grew into an enormous enterprise, and was promoted as having 850,000 exhibits and curiosities throughout the saloons. The Museum occupied four conjoined buildings where workshops and laboratories were arranged to prepare exhibits. A wax-figure department to produce likenesses of notable personalities of the day, a taxidermy department and aquarium were in operation, and an elaborate set-design department satisfied the demand for an active public theater. Amidst the performers, lecturers, and living curiosities were a host of exhibitors, demonstrating various skills and crafts, as well as new technological devices. A continual stream of changing exhibitions ranging from talking machines, panoramas of Niagara Falls, Paris and Peru, ivory carvers, glassblowers, sewing machine operators, musicians and ballerinas entertained the masses.
It was through the success of the American Museum that Barnum realized that conventional ideals could be transformed through ingenuity and innovation. The Museum embodied all that American society sought as they struggled to legitimize a new democratic frontier, and celebrate a newly found personal authority. Whether fact or fiction, the conclusion was less relevant than the experience or opportunity. Barnum was ingenious in presenting speculation within a world of curiosity. He offered a chance to explore the irrational, examine imaginative possibilities, and derive opinions and truths. Even for P.T. Barnum, the American Museum was only the beginning of a lifetime of extraordinary adventure and acquisition of immense personal knowledge and fame.
In November of 1842, Barnum stopped in Bridgeport, Connecticut while returning home from a trip to Albany, New York. Barnum’s half brother Philo introduced him to a small boy named Charles Sherwood Stratton who was four years-old, stood 25 inches high, and weighing only 15 pounds. Recognizing Charles as a marvel of nature, Barnum recalled, “After seeing him and talking with him, I am once determined to secure his services from his parents and to exhibit him in public.” Barnum made arrangements with Sherwood and Cynthia Stratton, to hire their little son for $3.00 a week, plus room, board, and travel for the boy and his mother while in New York. Barnum set to work creating a legend. The small boy became known to society as General Tom Thumb, Man in Miniature, billing him as eleven-years old, recently arriving from England. New York’s fascination with the child was overwhelming, and after the first month, Barnum raised Tom’s salary to $7.00 a week. Soon Tom Thumb was commanding the astounding weekly salary of $25. With this extraordinary popularity, Barnum arranged a tour of England where the company was given an audience with Queen Victoria, the royal family and many crowned heads-of-state. Barnum and Tom Thumb continued to travel through England, France, Germany, and Belgium, performing as various costumed characters such as Samson, Napoleon, and characters from ancient Greece. With the momentum of glorious fame, Barnum and Tom continued to tour the United States and Cuba, attracting audiences of thousands, and quickly being hailed as the “most SURPRISING and DELIGHTFUL curiosities the world has ever produced!“
By the 1850’s, Phineas Taylor Barnum was one of the wealthiest men in the country and he had taken great care in constructing his position as a prominent social player in New York City. He was as famous as his American Museumand became as remarkable an attraction as many of the exhibits. It was common to see the Barnum name printed and posted on broadsides and in newspapers all over America. Advertisements regaling the wonders of the natural world as presented at his American Museum continued to charge the imagination and stimulated the nation’s desire to seek reason, engage in discussion and formulate personal conclusions.
The mid 19th century in America was a time of great excitement, change, growth and trepidation. Broader exposure to the modes and manners of European cultural tastes was intriguing and offered variety. The pursuit of refinement and cultural enlightenment assisted in molding a new American society that was eager to advance its standard of civility. Times of leisure were filled with activities that promoted self-betterment, and familiarity with the arts, music, and literature became building blocks in constructing a virtuous, intellectual and enlightened character. Barnum was typical of this attitude. Although professionally he catered to the amusement desires of the masses, he found greater enjoyment in classical entertainment, stating; “I myself relished a higher grade of amusement, and I was a frequent attendant at the opera, first-class concerts, lectures and the like.“
During the 1840’s, while abroad on the successful European engagement of Tom Thumb, P.T. Barnum contemplated an American tour by the famous Swedish coloratura soprano, Jenny Lind. Known throughout Continental Europe as the Swedish Nightingale, Lind was the toast of England and Europe. After months of negotiation, the terms for the amazing venture were fixed, and the agreement was drawn. It was concluded that Lind was to receive $1,000 a night for her performances, up to $150,000 for compensation during the tour. In addition, all expenses, including servants, a secretary, three musical assistants and related transportation and board, would be assumed by Barnum. The terms of the contract served both parties; Lind received an enormous monetary guarantee from the tour affording her the opportunity to realize her dream of establishing a musical academy for girls in Stockholm; in return, Jenny Lind was ordained Barnum’s instrument of reformation, furthering his ideals of theater going as moral, benevolent, educational, and entertaining.
The first concert, scheduled to take place at Castle Garden in New York City on September 11, 1850, quickly sold out. More than 5,000 people filled the Garden and thousands more crowded outside hoping to catch faint echoes of the concert. The New York Herald declared, “Jenny Lind is the most popular woman in the world at this moment.” Barnum confesses in his autobiography that his anticipation, and that of the public, might be too high to be realized… “and hence that there would be a reaction after the first concert: but I was happily disappointed…The transcendent musical genius of the Swedish Nightingale was superior to all that fancy could paint…” The momentum did not fade. By the end of the New York engagement, the concerts had generated $87,055.89, and Jenny Lind’s salary was immediately increased.
On June 3, 1851, The New York Daily Tribune reported that after nine months of constant publicity and tour management details, Barnum and Lind decided to terminate the enterprise. The total receipts of the concerts amounted to $712,161.43.
Barnum’s aspiration of reconstructing social attitudes toward the theater was realized as the American entertainment industry flourished and gained momentum. Subsequently, Barnum’s pursuit of respectability, and social gratitude was found in the Lind endeavor, enabling him to identify and justify his cultural and intellectual sophistication within mid 19th century genre. As Barnum’s instrument, Jenny Lind captured a nation’s passion and spirit. The message of her music and integrity of her character resonated to audiences throughout America and continue to be celebrated even today.
City of Bridgeport, Connecticut
P.T. Barnum had a vision for his adopted home of Bridgeport, Connecticut. “In 1851…the east side of the river… [was] intended this as the nucleus of a new city.” This section of land was declared East Bridgeport. Barnum designated his acquisition as the new metropolis of the eastern seaboard, intended to thrive as Connecticut’s hub for the nation’s industrial surge. Barnum solicited successful manufacturers, enticing them to move their businesses to this agriculturally rich and naturally advantageous landscape. With these valuable resources at hand, East Bridgeport was prime real estate for Barnum’s ideological city, capable and destined to infuse the developing northeastern economy and establish Bridgeport as a predominant industrial leader.
As Barnum proceeded with his plan of growth and commercial initiative, he suffered a disastrous miscalculation during a business negotiation with the Jerome Clock Company of Litchfield and New Haven that bankrupted his amassed fortune. Barnum was forced to sell and mortgage his properties and collections to satisfy the inherited dept of the doomed company. In a maneuver, atypical of the astute businessman, his monumental pursuit of developing a new industrial city was halted by this reversal of financial standing and stability. Departing from his New York and Connecticut enterprises to reestablish his fortune and integrity, Barnum sought redemption in England and Europe touring with his long time friend and business associate, General Tom Thumb, and devoted himself to the lecture field on the theme of his book, “The Art of Money-Getting“.
It took Barnum five years to re-establish his monetary standing, believing that the reversal of his good fortune was a divine lesson, Barnum stated in his autobiography, “I humbly hope and believe that I am being taught humility and reliance upon Providence, which will yet afford a thousand times more peace and true happiness than can be acquired in the din, strife and turmoil, excitements and struggles of this money-worshipping age.” With his return to the American social and professional scene, Barnum purchased back many of his properties and assets including the collection and control of his New York American Museum. In addition, Barnum sought to revitalize his zeal for the development of East Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barnum ultimately became the primary engineer of the city’s prosperous industrial age. An entrepreneur, Bridgeport Mayor, Connecticut legislator, urban developer, community benefactor, philanthropist, abolitionist, and author, Barnum was committed to the intellectual and cultural development of the City of Bridgeport and assisted in ushering in an epic of unprecedented industrial growth in Connecticut and on an American landscape.
GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
“I thought I had finished the show business,” Barnum wrote to a friend, “just for a flyer I go it once more.”
In 1870 Barnum’s innate showman instinct was stimulated by a proposal from mid-western circus managers, W.C. Coup and his partner, Dan Castello, to collaborate on an enormous circus venture that promised to revitalize his passion for museums and menageries. It was Barnum’s life-long affection for his American Museum that ultimately fostered the creation of “The Greatest Show On Earth,” and he enthusiastically recruited many of his old friends and performers, seeking new exciting acts to join in his latest adventure. “Greater than anything he had ever done,” Barnum stated, “[It will be] the largest group of wonders ever known…My great desire is… to totally eclipse all other exhibitions in the world.” On April 10, 1871, P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus opened in Brooklyn.
As the wheels of Barnum’s The Greatest Show on Earth continued to gain momentum, he secured a site as a permanent home for the spectacular show. Opening on April 30, 1874, The New York Hippodrome, later to be known as Madison Square Garden, was the largest public amusement structure ever built, seating over 10,000 and costing $150,000. The lavish productions presented at the Hippodrome set the tone for the future of the circus spectacular, and first-class performances were synonymous with Barnum shows.
A new challenge came to P.T. Barnum in 1880. The Great London Show, managed in part by James Bailey, was met with enormous success the world over. Encroaching on Barnum’s American market, the idea of combining the two great shows was approached. Barnum wrote, “I had at last met showmen worthy of my steel!” With the success of the circus enterprise, Barnum acknowledged James Bailey as one of his most prized associates, recognizing Bailey’s instinctive propensity for circus management. In March of 1881, The Barnum & London Circus opened in New York and traveled more than 12,000 miles before returning to the winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The following season brought great success to Barnum and Bailey with the purchase of the legendary elephant Jumbo from the Royal Zoological Gardens in England. The purchase of Jumbo was one of Barnum’s greatest triumphs. Standing over 11 ½ feet tall and weighing 6 ½ tons, it was not long before Jumbo became the fascination of America, and after only six weeks in the United States, Jumbo’s appearances grossed $336,000. Billed as a friend to the children of the world, Jumbo was Barnum and Bailey’s major attraction for over three years until the elephant’s accidental death, being struck by a train in Ontario, Canada in September, 1885.
In 1887, for the first time, Barnum agreed to relinquish control of the show’s management, dividing into an equal partnership and sharing title becoming the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. Bailey continued the management of The Greatest Show on Earth for many years after Barnum’s death in 1891. Touring Europe and the United States, Bailey proceeded to build upon the grandeur of the spectacular production, traveling with 28 rail cars, employing over 1,000 people, introducing 5 rings, creating elaborate animated floats and wagons, and incorporating modern acts. By the beginning of the new century, however, Bailey’s rivals, the Ringling brothers, were as grand a production in scale and pageantry as the Barnum & Bailey show. Upon Bailey’s death in 1906, the Barnum & Bailey circus continued without a namesake at the helm. The renowned Kings of the Circus World, the Ringling brothers were now respectfully the leaders of the amusement world and purchased the interest of the Barnum & Bailey Show in July, 1907. In 1919, twenty-eight years after P.T. Barnum’s death, economic impacts and war-time conditions, forced the shows to combine, becoming known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth.
The Sun of The Amusement World
The Barnum story cannot be fully or fairly told if the multitude of layers composing his character are not addressed. Aware of his own complexities, Barnum wrote an autobiography in 1855 that underwent numerous additions throughout his life. Giving equal relevance to his childhood experiences as well as his major professional enterprises, the text provides us with a detailed narrative of Barnum’s life, enabling us to transform our modern conceptions of the man, offering insight and validation for provincial personal explorations while divulging sophistication in his character and composition. It was reported that P.T. Barnum’s final words on April 7, 1891, were a request asking what the circus receipts were at Madison Square Garden that day. Barnum’s fervor and personal resolution were present until his final moments. Although more than 60 years old when he created “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Barnum’s life-long ambitions, reflections, resolutions, experiences and successes served to define the legacy of the great entrepreneur and showman. It is, however, P.T. Barnum’s circus endeavor that has endured through time and has become testament to his struggles and triumphs, enshrining his existence and preserving his immortality.
Barnum uncovered a world of curiosity and, in doing so, discovered the curious, offered the superlative and invited the controversial. P.T. Barnum was the answer to the democratic dream to challenge the establishment and alter the authoritative voice. His pioneering spirit of promotion and his acumen for business transformed popular conceptions of the era, in turn molding and defining many ideals of today. Although Barnum was considered extreme in his methods, a concept at times still shared today, he must be acknowledged and credited with significant contributions to the face of American entertainment, and the art of making entertainment great.
The Barnum Museum Executive Director/Curator
P.T. Barnum’s impact reaches deep into our American heritage and the story of his vast contributions are preserved in his Bridgeport museum. Conceived and constructed by P.T., The Barnum Museum has proudly served an international audience since 1893, and is one of our country’s great national treasures. The ornate, exotic building distinguishes the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s uniqueness, it is a symbol of achievement and creativity, and is a testament to the pioneers and visionaries of the 19th century.