Phineas Taylor Barnum, America’s Greatest Showman of the 19th Century

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Although Phineas Taylor Barnum (PT Barnum) along with James A. Bailey defined the image of the circus, he was also a hoaxer. Despite that, he can teach us about resiliency, moving around obstacles and how to make money. When Barnum went bankrupt, he went on the lecture circuit, speaking about “The Art of Money Getting,” and five years later was out of debt. Barnum called himself the Prince of Humbug. 

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Name: Phineas Taylor Barnum

Birth Date: July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891

Job Functions: Politician, Showman, Businessman, Entertainer, Hoaxer

Fields: Museums, Circus

Known For: Defining the image of the circus. 

PT Barnum’s Steps to Success 

PT Barnum became successful and famous long before he entered the circus business. He worked very hard and knew how to have a lot of fun. Barnum’s father died when he was 15 years old, leaving the family penniless. This forced him to grow up very quickly and become the breadwinner of the family. 

  1. At 15, Barnum became clerk in a country store. For the next 10 years, he held varied positions such as shop owner, director of lotteries, and the newspaper publisher of the Herald of Freedom.
  2. In the role of publisher, over a period of several years, Barnum was arrested three times for libel, and once spent 60 days in prison. Ever the showman, when he was released, “Barnum was met by a band and ‘a coach drawn by six horses’ for a parade back to town.”
  3. In 1835, Barnum paid $1,000 for the rights to exhibit Joice Heth for 10 months. Joice Heth was an African woman with a disability whose sponsors claimed that she was over 160 years old and had nursed George Washington as an infant. For a time, Heth was very popular, and when public interest waned, Barnum wrote anonymous letters to the newspapers claiming that the show was a hoax. Another story that circulated claimed that Heth “was not human at all but an ‘automaton’ made of whalebone, Indian rubber, and springs.” With a claim like that, the exhibit hall was once again filled. The next year when Heth died, the autopsy showed that she was around 80 years old. Barnum claimed that he had been duped.
  4. From his experience with Joice Heth, Barnum knew what would sell – people wanted to be amused, even when others tried to “pull the wool over their eyes.” Not so today though.
  5. Although he had no money, Barnum purchased the struggling Scudder’s American Museum, with its collection of curiosities. He transformed it into a successful business, making it the most famous showplace of the century.
  6. Much of the success of the museum is attributed to Barnum’s genius as a copywriter, and the stunts he created to publicize the exhibits. For instance, some of his most popular exhibits include: Siamese twins Chang and Eng; Anna Swan, the tallest girl in the world; Annie Jones, the bearded lady; and 26-inch-tall “General Tom Thumb,” who was considered a midget. Overall, General Tom Thumb was Barnum’s greatest exhibit – “of the 82 million tickets Barnum sold during his lifetime for various attractions, Tom Thumb sold over 20 million. Heads of State such as Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria visited the museum to see Tom Thumb.
  7. General Tom Thumb, whose real name was Charles S. Stratton, entered Barnum’s employ in 1842 at five years old, 26 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds.
  8. Barnum gave lectures in Europe on topics such as “The Science of Money Making and the Philosophy of Humbug.”
  9. In the 1850s, he invested his entire fortune to bring Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, affectionately known as ‘the Swedish Nightingale,’ for a tour of the United States. Using his skill at promotions, Barnum made a fortune for himself and the singer.
  10. Barnum operated the five-story museum for over 25 years. The museum housed over 50,000 curiosities, and he charged the public 25 cents for admission.
  11. Although Barnum was almost ruined five times by fires, he always seemed to bounce back. In 1855, at age 46, Barnum was bankrupt. He went on the lecture circuit, speaking about “The Art of Money Getting,” and five years later was out of debt.
  12. In 1855, Barnum published his first autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum, and in 1869, his second, Struggles and Triumphs.
  13. Served as a political liberal in the Connecticut Legislature in the late 1860s, where he fought the railroad interests. He was elected mayor of Bridgeport in 1875-1876.
  14. In 1874, he opened his first circus, which he merged with James A. Bailey’s in 1881, and they transformed their circus into a three ringed one.
  15. In 1881, Barnum purchased Jumbo – the largest elephant in captivity – from the London Zoo.

Biggest Accomplishments Why PT Barnum’s Contribution Matters 

Although PT Barnum had legitimate business operations, he was also a scam artist and hoaxer. However, he helped to define the image of the circus, and he can also teach us the power of resiliency when we face great adversity. 

Lessons from PT Barnum 

  1. Resiliency: Fall down seven times get up eight.
  2. Money should never stand in the way of achieving your dreams.
  3. Work with the best people: Barnum and Bailey recruited the best and most celebrated circus performers in the world to make their circus better.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you enjoyed this post, please share it. 

Book links are affiliate links.

Further Reading/Books 

Video: Humbug — The Art of P.T. Barnum

The Art of Money Getting; Or, Golden Rules for Making Money by P. T. Barnum

Life of P. T. Barnum (Classic Reprint) by P. T. Barnum

Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty years’ recollections of P. T. Barnum by P. T. Barnum 

Sources Cited/Referenced 

Encyclopedia of World Biography

Business Leader Profiles for Students

Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America, “Circuses.”

American History Through Literature

Gale Encyclopedia of US Economic History

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