Barnum, P. T. (1810–1891)

Receiving little schooling, at age six P. T. Barnum adopted his father's drive for marketing and spent many days when he should have been at school working with his father instead. Barnum quickly became educated in the business industry, working with the local lottery under the supervision of his grandfather, Philo Barnum. He later owned a country store following his father's death in 1825. Soon after, Barnum married Charity Hallet and had four children. Following the death of Hallet, Barnum married Nancy Fish. While Barnum is well known for his circus, making him a father of modern popular culture in the United States, Barnum originally focused on politics. He died on April 7, 1891, but his circus remains intact to this day.

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut, to Irena Taylor Barnum and Philo F. Barnum. Although his schooling was short, Barnum excelled in arithmetic, far beyond the other students. He argued that his arithmetic skills continued to develop over the years, and by the time he was 12, neighbors waged bets that he could not provide the correct result of math problems without help; he always provided the right answer. At 12 years old, Barnum traveled to New York City by boat. With unfavorable weather, his voyage lasted seven days, during which time his grandfather, Phineas Taylor, entertained the boy, opening young Barnum's eyes to the world of amusement. After investing his funds into a store, Barnum was visited by Hackariah Bailey (no relation to James A. Bailey, Barnum's later partner), who told Barnum about the first elephant imported to the United States. Incorporating his earlier experience with the lottery, Barnum established numerous agents throughout the country to sell tickets, utilizing his entertainment and advertising skills to promote his lottery.

By 1831, Barnum published abolitionist editorials in the Christian newspaper the Herald of Freedom and was jailed at one point for libeling an alleged usurer. Being a showman, Barnum rode in an open coach drawn by six horses and accompanied by cannon blasts, making the most of his return from jail. Abolitionist viewpoints aside, Barnum purchased and promoted a supposed 161-year-old slave named Joice Heth, who claimed to be owned by George

Known as America's greatest showman, P. T. Barnum made popular entertainment, promoted through aggressive publicity, was a staple in American life and changed the way Americans viewed leisure time and cultural pursuits. He is best

Known as America's greatest showman, P. T. Barnum made popular entertainment, promoted through aggressive publicity, was a staple in American life and changed the way Americans viewed leisure time and cultural pursuits. He is best known as the cofounder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (Library of Congress)

Washington, the exhibition of whom brought him $750 weekly. Then Barnum moved into copurchasing a small circus and finally invested in and created Barnum's American Museum, arguably the United States’ first public museum.

Perhaps one of his most puzzling efforts was The Adventures of an Adventurer, published by Barnum but under the pseudonym Barnaby Diddledum. As the author, Barnum presented the stories of Heth, yet the book appeared to be an opportunity to brag about his personal good deeds; he entertained his audience with jokes and advice and also expressed his feelings about politics. Although Barnum affiliated himself with more northern attitudes about slavery, the book satirizes abolitionists and publicly scorns Heth as an actress who lied about her personal history to receive payment in whiskey.

Realizing that he could capitalize once again on entertainment, Barnum took a different approach to capturing people's fascination. In 1842, Barnum hired a 2-foot-tall, 10-year-old boy known as General Tom Thumb to entertain patrons in the United States and then England. The tour stopped for Queen Victoria and then traveled to Paris after making enormous profits in England. Then, in 1850, Barnum mortgaged everything to bring Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to the United States for 93 highly anticipated concerts, traveling across the country with Tom Thumb and various wild animals as part of his “Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie,” which presaged the creation of his great circus. Losing his fortune by 1857, Barnum sold his museum and recuperated his losses with lectures at local universities and more tours with Tom Thumb to purchase another museum. By 1865, his museum burned down, but Barnum rebuilt it nearby.

Prior to his death, Barnum helped recreate his circus as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1891, Barnum realized death was imminent. He wrote his own obituary and printed it in the newspaper so he could read it before his death. He died on April 7, 1891, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, having been instrumental in the development of modern popular culture as a means to entertain the masses.

Matthew Whitlock

See also: Abolitionism ; Gilded Age ; Leisure ; Popular Culture


Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

HarpWeek. “Phineas Taylor ‘P. T.’ Barnum.” Accessed December 1, 2013.

Werner, M. R. Barnum. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Company, 1927.