PTB Letters (#55) How to Do Business in Baltimore

How to Do Business in Baltimore

P. T. Barnum’s twelve-page letter to Alanson Taylor, dated January 21st, 1846, and written in Dunfermline, Scotland, gives us a lot to unpack—no “small talk” takes up space on those pages! In last week’s blog we learned about his ideas for attractions (and there are even more I did not cover, such as plays), and this week we’ll see what he had to say on subjects pertaining to business operations in their venture as equal partners of the Baltimore Museum. Barnum had a great deal of advice to dole out, but aware that his maternal uncle deserved the level of respect accorded someone older than himself, he explained, “Excuse this apparent egotism in giving advice to one so much my senior in years & very superior in knowledge.  What I write is at least well meant.”

At times the relationship between them was uneasy, with Barnum never quite sure what his uncle was planning next, and fearing that he would make a serious error in judgement when it came to business matters.  After learning he was about to become a partner, he wrote, “As I am getting so many irons in the fire, I wish that each business shall be kept as plain and simple as possible, devoid of all intricacies so that it can be settled without difficulty, either with me or any other person in case of my or your own death.”  Some of his advice to Taylor was specific and detailed but he also offered standard counsel of the period, though he admitted his own American Museum manager was a far better practitioner than himself:

By all means let no debts stand against the museum.  Settle your printers, bill posters & every other bill (except for yearly advertisements, gas & rent) every week—and the other bills above named punctually when due.  Let everything thus be in order for there is nothing so pleasant in business affairs as a good and rigid system, something, by the way, which I too much lack myself—but which Hitchcock has to a charm—and which every person should have.

Having himself been a newspaperman in the early 1830s, Barnum was quick to start off by reminding his uncle,

It is hardly necessary for me to say that the first and one of the most important steps to be taken is to secure the favor and good feeling of the Baltimore Press.  No matter how small a circulation a paper may have, if it is large enough to support itself, it can help or hurt us.  Free admissions and a little courtesy with editors and reporters will go farther than money—“there’s nothing” as Sam Slick says, “like the soft sawda [soda?],” when not put on too thick.

Barnum referred to “Sam Slick,” a Yankee peddler character who was the invention of a Nova Scotian judge, Thomas Chandler Haliburton. He began writing a series of satirical sketches featuring Sam Slick in 1835, and the next year a compilation was published as The Clockmaker. Slick’s humorous witticisms and biting observations of human nature made him quite popular for years to come; The Clockmaker was Canada’s first international bestseller. (Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)

He also recommended having an annual contract for advertising as it would prove to be a better bargain, and he directed that the advertising should not be limited to promoting the attractions at the museum.  A clever tactic would be to also promote the physical improvements they made.  While cautioning Taylor about spending too much on the latter, Barnum realized there was an investment value beyond the obvious: opportunities to promote these expenses to their advantage—the more pumped up the better—awakening the public to his generous outlay of dollars to give people a comfortable experience, as well as entertaining them.

Make your improvements gradually, beginning with those which are most needed, and try to earn the money along, as fast as you expend it & faster if possible, and above all things let not a paint brush touch the museum, nor a hammer be struck there without having it fully announced in papers & bills, in order that the public shall see with what great liberality, the new managers are catering for their amusement, comfort & convenience.

Barnum had little respect for Rembrandt Peale and his partner Seawright (described as a fool or knave), from whom the Baltimore Museum collections had been purchased for $9000; his disdain may have stemmed partly from a neglect of physical improvements.  Taylor must have described some of the deficiencies in a letter to his nephew, for Barnum replied to him,

No doubt as you say many improvements can be made to great advantage, and they must be made.  If you get a five or ten year’s lease of the museum for $1200 and can then get a corresponding lease of the necessary space adjoining, so that the rent will not go too high, you had better do so, if you think best, but look sharp when you commence making alterations and repairs, or you will find that it will eat us all up.  The expences of such things are awful unless you have it done by responsible men and by the job.

Barnum also expressed the need for prudence and caution in regard to managing the ticket office, which suggests ticketing irregularities and theft were common ways that businesses like his lost money.  He stated emphatically,

I have long been satisfied that the only possible safe way for a place of public amusement is to have two persons constantly engaged as ticket sellers & receivers.  Never was so great a temptation to steal money, a little every day, as at the office of a place of amusement where there is no check upon the money receiver.  This world is so bad that in my opinion there are but few who could long resist such a temptation, and it is wicked wrong & foolish to tempt even those few.  The only effectual way to keep people honest is to prevent the possibility of their being otherwise.  I hope that you will establish the most rigid rules in relation to your money affairs.

Repeating his desire to have everything done in a straightforward fashion that ensured both honesty and accuracy, he added,

And therefore it is best to have everything done in a plain business-like manner, you taking receipts and vouchers for all monies paid out, and above all establishing such a plan in regard to the receipt of money at the door, as to place it beyond all question, that there is no smuggling or cheating there.

Perhaps Barnum had run into difficulties of this sort before, or knew about them from others’ experiences, for he also warned,

You ought to trust no one person living with the receiving of money as it is impossible that you can always take money, and in fact as your time can always be much more profitably employed than in the mere mechanical business of selling or taking tickets, I propose that you never bother with it, but that you do what always ought to be done at any place of amusement viz; have a good set of tickets printed, (on thick paper manufactured specially like those at the Am[erican] Museum) and have those tickets always locked as closely as if they were money—then always have a ticket seller and ticket receiver; if one or both are females, it’s all the better for they have less temptations to steal, having less use for money than men; and let them be such persons as there could be no possible danger of collusion between them.  Then there should be a regular counting of money & tickets each night, and if seller and receiver are both vigilant the money  & tickets would always correspond.

In a rare expression of confidence in Gen. Tom Thumb ‘s father, Sherwood Stratton, whom Barnum had employed at the American Museum prior to the European tour partnership, he described Stratton’s competence in managing the ticket sales.

Stratton has sold tickets to the amount of $150,000 or more, and the whole difference between his receipts & the tickets have not varied $5.  Day after day and month after month has he taken from $200 to $1100 per day averaging $400—without varying (tickets & money) a single penny, for my ticket receiver is like a hawk & not a person can get past him without giving up the ticket.

Not everyone paid admission to see the American Museum.  As Barnum admitted, “One great fault of mine always has been allowing too many dead-heads.”  He advised his uncle,

I hope you will avoid this (except to the press) for it is a double evil.  It makes the museum appear cheap & common to those who go in free—and it makes others begrudge to pay their money when they know that many of their acquaintances get the same thing for nothing.  None appreciate performances so well as those who pay for them.

Barnum also mentioned another arrangement he’d had at the American Museum.  “If you have a place for a small refreshment stand I would advise you to give it to my old Albino Lady; and give her husband some employ about the Museum at $4 per week provided she would attend it herself.”  In previous letters to others, Barnum had expressed feelings of guilt about letting the poor woman go, saying he had done so when he felt forced by the landlord to rehire the experienced, trustworthy “Frances” at an above average salary for a female ticket manager.  If Taylor would hire the albino lady, he could also employ the husband, as Barnum had done.  He tried to persuade Taylor, noting,

She is a good attraction (for [she costs] nothing) and I always regretted letting her go—especially as I had her for less than nothing, she paying me a rent for the bar, or refreshment stand (no liquors.)  William her husband is steady & faithful, good to distribute bills, see to the gas, stages & c.

Barnum fully intended that attractions he purchased for his American Museum in New York would make their way down to Baltimore when the time was right, but they would not be sent free of charge.  Again, stressing the desire that business between himself, as proprietor of the American Museum, and Taylor would be fair and transparent, he wrote,

Hitchcock must spare all novelties which he can & the Baltimore Museum must be charged merely what they cost me—that is to say the interest & wear and tear of the articles used, making proper allowance for the decrease in value owing to the wearing off of the novelty.  All I want (you know) is what is right and just.  I want you to reciprocate in all the advantages which the Baltimore Museum can derive from any facilities which I can afford it—always keeping me whole however, in furnishing said facilities.

Barnum recognized that his uncle might decide he wanted a different business partner; their relationship, as inferred from Barnum’s correspondence, often involved his having to backtrack and explain intentions and motives that his uncle had misunderstood—and not just on the subject of religion.  Barnum therefore made it clear to Taylor that should he wish to find a different partner, he was free to do so.

If you prefer at present to make any other arrangement with any other person, I give full liberty to you to do so, all that I could in justice ask, or all that I should desire, would be the money which I have laid out.  I am candid in this, and I mention it not because I see anything in your letters that would indicate that you prefer any other arrangement, to being equal partners with me; but to give you full liberty to make any other arrangement if per chance (which I do not believe) you would prefer to do so.

Interestingly, Barnum mentioned that Moses Kimball, his showman-competitor-friend in Boston, had approached him about borrowing $25,000 to build a new building—a very large sum in those days!  Perhaps Barnum sensed the possibility that his uncle might approach Kimball as a potential partner.  I suspect that probably would not have sat well with him, despite what he wrote about giving his uncle free rein to choose another partner.  Referring to Kimball’s request for a loan he noted, “. . . [Kimball] is illy prepared to buy the Baltimore if you wished him to do so which I trust you do not.”

This print dating to about 1850 shows the second of Moses Kimball’s Boston Museum buildings; it was constructed in 1846 at 28 Tremont Street. Kimball asked Barnum to loan him $25,000 toward the project; whether he did is uncertain as of a letter dated January 21, 1846, in Barnum’s copybook. (Digital Commonwealth; print is owned by the Boston Public Library)

Finally, with optimism and hope if not full confidence, Barnum assured his uncle,

I think that you are the man to guard against great expences, and if you do this, and go on saving and hording every dollar that can be made, the time is not far distant when a nest egg will have been laid by which will be of great service to yourself & family.  But for the first four years,  you must live close (if you intend to be rich—as I intend you shall be) and by so doing the result is sure.  We must all creep before we walk.  Economy industry & perseverance combined will work wonders . . . .

. . . as they did for Barnum; his recipe for financial success is encapsulated in that last sentence.  Economy, industry and perseverance are words he would continue to live by through the decades ahead, in all of his career endeavors.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

Now more than ever, the Barnum Museum needs your help!  Please consider making a donation to help support our educational programs!

Donate to the Barnum Museum!

Become a Barnum Museum YouTube Subscriber and be the first to see all our new episodes!

Subscribe to our new YouTube Channel