P. T. Barnum and the Circus Industry

Phineas Taylor Barnum, more popularly known as P. T. Barnum was a great American promoter of circus. Born in Connecticut, United States on July 5, 1810, he founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

P. T. Barnum
P. T. Barnum (Credit: wiki commons)

Barnum was the son of an innkeeper father and a mother who descended from the prominent Taylor Clan that included a legislator and a landowner. At 12, he sold lottery tickets and by the time he got married at age 19, he was already the owner of several businesses such as newspaper, real estate, a general store and a lottery network.

When lotteries were banned in Connecticut, he moved to New York where he began his show business. There, he purchased a blind slave named Joice Heth who claimed to be 161 years old and a former nurse to George Washington. He exhibited Joice throughout the Northeast for a fee. Later, he purchased an old museum which he renamed as Barnum’s American Museum. It became a famous funhouse with all kinds of oddities including a “feejee mermaid”. In 1842, he met a young boy whom he christened as General Tom Thumb. Standing 25 inches, Barnum trained him to sing and dance. He then exhibited the boy as “the smallest person that ever walked alone”. The boy became a huge attraction that Barnum decided to bring him to Europe. There, the boy was paraded for the amusement of the paying public. After an audience with Queen Victoria of England, it gained wide publicity and the boy’s popularity soared.

In 1850, Barnum signed up the Swedish singer, Jenny Lind, to do 150 concerts throughout the United States for $1,000 a night. After heavy promotions, the first concert was a major success allowing Barnum to earn more than his investment right away. Using profits made from the concert and the museum, Barnum invested in real estate which soured. This led to numerous litigations that led to his bankruptcy and public humiliation. After 4 years and with the help of his friends including Tom Thumb, he began to recover, paying all of his debts and resuming ownership of his theatres and museums.

In 1870, Barnum partnered with another circus master, James Anthony Bailey to form Barnum and Bailey Circus. Together, they started a travelling entertainment phenomenon using such promotional slogans as “Greatest Show on Earth”, “Travelling World’s Fair”, and “Great Roman Hippodrome”.

Barnum published his own autobiography which became a bestseller. He became a politician and got to the state legislature of Connecticut for 2 terms. As a philanthropist, he gave a substantial amount of money to Tufts University.

Barnum died in 1891 at the age of 80 in a cemetery which he himself designed.

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