Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91) was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810. Barnum did not invent the modern three-ring circus, nor did he even apply his flair for publicity to the circus until he was more than sixty years old, but his name continues to be associated with the spectacle that he called “the greatest show on earth.”
Big day of the year was circus day. Along in June P.T. Barnum would come to Waterbury. We’d all go down on the morning train, and spend the day there. Shops was shut down tight. If they didn’t nobody would have worked anyway.
“Recreation”. Art Botsford, interviewee; Francis Donovan, interviewer; Thomaston, Connecticut, December 6, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
In 1835, one year after moving to New York City, having already worked as a clerk, a merchant, a lottery agent, and a journalist, Barnum joined the ranks of professional showmen by introducing to the public an elderly woman named Joice Heth as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse. Although at the time of Heth’s death in 1836 the story was exposed as a hoax, Barnum had found his calling in the world of entertainment and in the power of novelty to draw and delight a crowd.
…if the stupendous wasn’t stupendous enough, the gigantic wasn’t gigantic enough, the colossal wasn’t colossal enough, or the “largest in captivity” wasn’t large enough, the town folks felt like they had grounds for a fight.
“Circus Days and Ways”. W. E. “Doc” Van Alstine, interviewee; A.C. Sherbert, interviewer; Portland, Oregon, July, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
In 1842, Barnum took over the American Museum in New York City and augmented its more conventional exhibits of stuffed animals and waxworks with the curiosities that he had collected from around the world. He brought to the museum oddities of all sorts—genuine and fake, living and dead. Among the most famous of his attractions were the FeeJee Mermaid—a cross between a human and a fish, Eng-Chang—Siamese twins, and Charles Stratton, a twenty-five-inch-tall man whom Barnum promoted as General Tom Thumb. Barnum and Stratton toured extensively and Stratton drew nearly 20 million ticket buyers to Barnum’s museum. Barnum even brought Stratton to the White House, where the two men met President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1850, in an effort to transform his image into that of a more refined patron of the arts, Barnum went to great expense to import and publicize Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale.” Her tour was an immense success.
Barnum expended much of his savvy for publicity on his own life and toured the country giving lectures on various topics, including The Art of Money Getting. In 1848, he built a home for himself near Bridgeport, Connecticut, that he called “Iranistan“, modeled after the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. He wrote multiple versions of his autobiography, updating and supplementing it regularly with new stories. He also served two terms in the Connecticut state legislature, after which he was elected mayor of Bridgeport. As mayor, he fought prostitution and discrimination against blacks.
In 1870-71 Barnum developed a new traveling show, which toured the United States and Europe, combining circus and animal acts, and exhibits and novelties. In 1880, Barnum entered into a partnership with successful circus manager James Bailey, to create what ultimately became known as The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.
Barnum enjoyed the publicity that he generated. Two weeks before his death, a New York newspaper obliged Barnum by printing his obituary early enough so that he might savor it.
The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs.
The Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages, by P. T. Barnum. (New York: Carleton, 1866), 16.
- To find images of circuses and circus people, search on the term circus in the Library’s pictorial collections.
- To find color versions of circus posters from the period, search the pictorial collections on the phrase Circus posters 1890 1900, and for a broader selection, try simply Circus posters.
- Reference specialists from the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division highlight selections from their circus posters collections in the following blog posts:
- To find personal accounts of circuses by audience members and performers, search the collection American Life Histories, Manuscripts from Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940.
- To find newspaper accounts of Barnum’s activities, search Chronicling America, the Library’s collection of digitized historic American newspapers, using keywords such as “P.T. Barnum,” “Barnum AND Circus,” etc. For articles on circuses in general you can start with Circus: Topics in Chronicling America.