Early Life and American Museum


by Professor Vanessa Toulmin 

National Fairground Archive University of Sheffield



Phineas T. Barnum was without doubt the greatest showman of the nineteenth century and perhaps only Buffalo Bill Cody could equal him in publicity and entertainment. Barnum talents lay in his ability to create fantasy out of nothing and with the creation of his American Museum and the exhibiting of the Feejee mermaid, the famous What Is It and Joice Heth the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, his talents as a showman were without equal.  This showman extraordinaire was born in Bethel Connecticut on 5 July 1810 and moved to New York in 1834 after spending his earlier career running a small newspaper. His early career success was with Joice Heth, an African American former slave whom he exhibited as former nurse to George Washington.  Barnum claimed she was 161 years old (instead of 80) and encouraged her to sing hymns that she reputedly sang to her former charge “little George”.  Barnum toured Heth for seven months prior to her death in 1836 and although later admitting it was a hoax,  hired Dr David L Rogers to perform a public autopsy (to an eager fee paying public) to disprove press speculation over her real age.   In 1841, Barnum brought John Scudder’s famous American Museum and transformed the fortunes of this run down museum of strange and hybrid curiosities.


P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, until its destruction by fire in 1865 was one of the foremost centres of entertainment in New York.  The American Museum was an institution that exhibited natural history specimens, oddities, paintings, wax figures, amusements, and memorabilia. Although marginally successfully as a dime Museum it did not receive national fame or prosperity until it was taken over by Barnum It was situated from 1841 to 1865, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City and became one of the foremost visitor attractions in New York. Posing as both an educational and entertainment establishment, the five-storey building hosted a variety of different attractions, including natural history in its menageries, aquarium, side-shows, waxworks and theatrical plays. The main principal of the museum was that for a fixed price admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions," including Tom Thumb and other famous side show novelties promoted by Barnum. The American Museum attempted to combine sensational entertainment with historical narratives, waxworks and panoramic views and was a place where a family could go for affordable wholesome entertainment for 25 cents.  An estimated 38 million people went through its doors until a fire destroyed the premises on July 13, 1865 and many of Barnum’s greatest triumphs including Tom Thumb, Zip or What is Is?, Chang and Eng, Jenny Lind  and of course the Feejee Mermaid, were within this five storey wonderland.


Barnum demonstrated within the American Museum and his European tours the art of Humbug which he qualified as being 'the knack of knowing what people will pay money to see or support'. His publicity and marketing stunts became legendary and formed the basis in many ways for the modern PR industry. He was a hustler and huckster, the original Yankee Doodle Dandy who convinced the public to pay to see the tail of a fish stitched to the head of a monkey.  Before his death on 7 April 1891, he asked for his obituary to be published in the Evening Sun, so he could read what was said and was arguably the most famous American of his day.



Barnum in Britain




Three years after opening his American Museum in New York and two years after the success of his latest attraction, the young Charles Stratton, Barnum determined to conquer Europe.   He arrived in Liverpool on 5 February 1844 when he smuggled Tom Thumb, aka Charles Stratton ashore in his mother's arms as Barnum wanted to conceal his new marvel from the eyes of the non paying public.  First contact was with a local showman who reputedly offered Barnum £2 a week to exhibit Tom Thumb.  Barnum declined and informed the showman that he had no intention of charging less than a shilling admission and that was to be after Tom Thumb had been granted an audience with Queen Victorian.  The presentation of human oddities in the Victorian era changed dramatically with P.T. Barnum and his famous attraction Tom Thumb which ultimately was the greatest manifestation of Barnum’s belief that all was humbug. When Barnum arrived in England in 1844 the British showmen were amazed that Barnum was hoping to attract so much money for simply exhibiting a dwarf.  However, Barnum in the shape of Tom Thumb, created a novelty act which would become one of the greatest attractions of the Victorian Era.  Charles Stratton or Tom Thumb was eleven years old when first exhibited by Barnum in 1844. Barnum changed his nationality from American to English, his age from four years of age to eleven and his name from Charles Stratton to General Tom Thumb.  When he left the States for his European tour he became an instant attraction and was presented to Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.  However, the discovery or creation of Tom Thumb surpassed all of his previous achievements and profits.  Such was the interest in Tom Thumb that Stratton’s marriage to Lavinia Warren in 1863 dominated New York Society and pushed the Civil War off the front page, with thousands lining the streets to see the bride arrive for the ceremony is a specially built miniature wedding carriage.   Charles and Lavinia Stratton toured the world earning contracts of $30,000 a year with Barnum stating in his autobiography that the American Museum alone sold £300 worth of photographic souvenirs a day of the happy couple. 


Barnum’s success in Europe and Britain in particular became the model for his continued success as a showman.  Despite the ups and downs of his turbulent career, involving the loss of his American Museum to fire in 1865 and his new premises in 1868, and several bankruptcy cases, it was to Britain that he would return to stage some of his greatest triumphs. During his time in Britain he attempted to purchase Shakespeare’s house in Stratford upon Avon and courted and enchanted London society who opened their doors and their pockets to his numerous “sideshow” attractions.  One of the variations of the Greatest Show on Earth was named Barnum’s Great London Circus and perhaps his greatest attraction in his later career as a circus showman was the great African elephant Jumbo he purchased from the London Zoo in 1882.



The Greatest Show on Earth



Barnum's career as a showman has been extensively documented with Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid and the Wild Men of Borneo becoming as famous as the showman who created and marketed them.   Barnum displayed both types of racial display; the freak and the ethnographic exhibition.  The later were part of the travelling circus that he formed with W.C Coup in 1871 billed as "the Greatest Show on Earth which toured with representative types of Chinese, Japanese, Aztecs and Eskimos and opened in Brooklyn New York. Ten years later Barnum formed a partnership with James A. Bailey's circus. Beginning in 1881, it operated under the name of Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. The show was so huge it needed three rings. Barnum cashed in on the popularity of circus animals and exhibited unusual and unique creatures such as the world's largest elephant, Jumbo, which he reputedly paid $10,000 from the London Zoological Gardens.  Perhaps its most famous occupant, Jumbo the African Elephant came to the Zoo 1865 and was the top attraction for seventeen years before being sold to Barnum, such was the outrage by the sale in the British press that 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell him.


The Barnum and Bailey's circus also included a sideshow, which was a smaller, separate show near the big top. Presenting sideshow oddities had made Barnum famous and his circus offered a range of freak show exhibits. However, it was the 1884 Ethnological Congress of the Barnum and London Circus that fulfilled the ambitions outlined by Barnum in his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs, of an exhibition of the world's civilized and barbarous peoples and reflected back to his early days in the American Museum


Barnum and Bailey’s  “Greatest Show on Earth visits to the United Kingdom in 1889 and then between 1897  to 1902 after James Bailey purchased the circus from Barnum’s widow in 1891, were the ultimate in showmanship and spectacle with an average crowd of 10,000 people for each performance. The United States led the way and European shows, though still tending towards a single ring, began to follow with their own more extravagant productions.


Showmanship and effective publicity through the parade became the means in which the circus advertised its tour and the performers became household names on both sides of the Atlantic. 

P. T. Barnum died in his sleep on 7 April 1891, only a few hours after asking for his daily receipts. Over his varied and disparate lifetime as an author, publisher, circus proprietor and Humbug he achieved international success and acclaim. His detractors and imitators were as widespread as his fans and the title of the different versions of his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs sold millions of copies during his lifetime. Barnum invented and perfected both the art of marketing and showmanship and in his own ways he lived and died a showman by profession...and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me. 





P. T. Barnum (1810 – 1891) was the inventor and pioneer of modern entertainment be it the sideshow, the circus or the concept of interactive museum style education. 2010 will be the 200th anniversary of this most important and universally acknowledged impresario whose influence still continues today.


click here - Humbug - a Celebration of Barnum


All Images and Text are posted with the permission of  Professor Vanessa Toulmin  National Fairground Archive University of Sheffield,  Images copyrighted ©2010 to the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield Library, All rights reserved,  they are part of an extensive sideshow collection. No Images may be reproduced, reposted or used in any manner except that of viewing without the express written permission of the National Fairground Archives. For more information click here  National Fairgrounds Archive University of Sheffield  


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This years exhibition will be at Showzam click here for more information  www.showzam.co.uk

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