P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum: (Phineas Taylor Barnum) (fĬn´ēəs, bär´nəm), 1810–91, American showman, b. Bethel, Conn. As a youth Barnum worked at diverse sales jobs and managed a boardinghouse. He made his first sensation in 1835 when he bought and exhibited Joice Heth, a slave who claimed she was 161 years old (she was about 80) and had been the nurse of George Washington. In 1842 he opened the American Museum in New York City and immediately became famous for his extravagant advertising and his exhibits of freaks. Among his great attractions were the Fiji Mermaid (formed by joining the upper half of a monkey to the stuffed lower half of a fish), "General Tom Thumb," who was viewed by over 20 million people, and the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng (see conjoined twins). In 1850, Barnum managed the American tour of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind and, with his talent for publicity, made it a huge financial success for her and for himself. In 1855 he retired from show business; he served as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., and in the Connecticut legislature. Driven into bankruptcy by unwise business ventures, he reopened the American Museum and then organized his famous circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1871. In 1881 he merged with his most successful competitor, James A. Bailey, and under the name Barnum and Bailey the circus continued for a generation after Barnum's death. The stellar attraction of the circus was Jumbo, the 61/2-ton African elephant that Barnum purchased from the London Zoo despite the furious protests of English elephant fanciers, including Queen Victoria. His autobiography was published in 1855 and went through many editions. He also wrote Humbugs of the World (1865), Struggles and Triumphs (1869), and Money Getting (1883).

See his autobiography, ed. by W. R. Browne (1927, repr. 1961); biography by C. Fleming (2009); N. Harris, Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (1981); A. Tompert, The Greatest Show on Earth (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

P. T. Barnum: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum By Joel Benton Edgewood Publishing, 1891
Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography By G. Thomas Couser Oxford University Press, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Prose and Cons: The Autobiographies of P. T. Barnum"
Personalities and Products: A Historical Perspective on Advertising in America By Edd Applegate Greenwood Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "How P. T. Barnum Helped Change the Course of Advertising"
Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture By R. Laurence Moore Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: "Mirthful, Innocent Amusements: Ridiculous and Sublime" begins on p. 106
America Learns to Play: A History of Popular Recreation, 1607-1940 By Foster Rhea Dulles D. Appleton-Century, 1940
Librarian's tip: Chap. VII "Mr. Barnum Shows the Way"
Jenny Lind: the Swedish Nightingale By Gladys Denny Shultz Lippincott, 1962
Librarian's tip: Chap. Nine "'This Jenny Lind Business Will Ruin You!'"
Handbook of American Popular Culture By M. Thomas Inge Greenwood Press, vol.1, 1989 (2nd Rev. edition)
Librarian's tip: "Circus and Outdoor Entertainment" begins on p. 173
The American Mind in Action By Harvey O'Higgins; Edward H. Reede Harper and Brothers, 1924
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "In Anthony Comstock and P. T. Barnum"
Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order By Jane R. Goodall Routledge, 2002
Librarian's tip: Discussion of P. T. Barnum begins on p. 21
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