#137 P.T. Barnum



Robert Wilson's biography "P.T. Barnum: An American Life" reveals the multifaceted legacy of P.T. Barnum, a man who began as a promoter of dubious acts but evolved into a respected American figure. Barnum's life arc was marked by early controversies, yet he transformed himself and his ventures, earning nationwide respect. Known for his circus association, Barnum's life encompassed roles as an author, lecturer, real estate developer, legislator, and mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His relentless self-promotion and innovative events drew vast audiences, reflecting his deep understanding of public desires. Despite embodying some of America's worst impulses, Barnum also represented its best, becoming a global celebrity admired for his patriotism, charity, and embodiment of the American character. His story, as chronicled by Wilson, is a testament to the power of reinvention and the pursuit of the American dream.

Summary Notes

Early Life and Entrepreneurial Spirit of P.T. Barnum

  • P.T. Barnum showed an early interest in earning and accumulating money.
  • At the age of 12, he began making sweets to sell to soldiers, which allowed him to buy livestock and property.
  • His father's death at 16 thrust him into the role of provider for his family, highlighting his early sense of responsibility.
  • Barnum moved to New York at 17 to start his own business, indicating his entrepreneurial spirit and self-reliance.
  • He demonstrated an understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, knowing early on that he was not fit to work for others.

"What did interest him from an early age was money and its accumulation."

This quote illustrates Barnum's early fascination with wealth and his proactive approach to achieving financial success.

Barnum's Business Ventures and Adaptability

  • Barnum's first business was a porter house, which he sold at a profit shortly after starting it.
  • At 21, he opened a store selling a variety of goods but was unsuccessful due to a lack of understanding of the business.
  • He then started a lottery business, which was very profitable and provided insights into his customers' true interests.
  • Barnum's lottery business taught him the importance of advertising and gave him a glimpse into the desires of the public.

"Like most persons who engage in a business which they do not understand, we were unsuccessful in the enterprise."

This quote reflects Barnum's learning experience from his failed store venture, emphasizing the importance of understanding one's business.

Barnum's Insight into Public Desires and Showmanship

  • Barnum recognized a discrepancy between what people said they liked and what they actually enjoyed.
  • He noticed that even those who publicly condemned gambling, such as clergymen, were among his private customers for lottery tickets.
  • Barnum's experiences with the lottery business foreshadowed his future in the entertainment industry.

"A realization that outwardly respectable people might have interests that were not entirely respectable."

The quote highlights Barnum's realization that there was a market for entertainment that fell outside the bounds of what was traditionally considered moral or respectable.

The Intersection of Free Speech and Showmanship

  • Barnum's conviction and imprisonment for libel showcased his commitment to free speech.
  • While in jail, he continued to run his newspaper and used his situation to garner public attention.
  • His release from prison was turned into a public spectacle, demonstrating his innate showmanship.

"It was the first clear example of for his flair for drawing attention to his beliefs, his enterprises, and himself."

This quote underscores Barnum's ability to turn even adverse situations into opportunities to promote his beliefs and his brand.

Challenges and Optimism in Barnum's Career

  • The banning of lotteries by the state legislature forced Barnum to seek new ventures.
  • Despite financial lows, Barnum remained optimistic about his ability to make money.
  • His life was characterized by cycles of success and failure, reflecting his resilience and determination.

"Still, he was confident in his ability to earn money."

This quote conveys Barnum's unwavering optimism and confidence in his ability to overcome financial setbacks and find new opportunities.

Barnum as a Showman and Promoter

  • Barnum entered the world of showmanship by promoting human exhibitions, which were popular at the time.
  • His entry into the entertainment industry marked the beginning of a significant phase of his career.

"Barnum's era was a heyday for human exhibitions, and he was happy to play his part."

The quote contextualizes Barnum's foray into showmanship, situating it within a period when public curiosity about the unusual and extraordinary was high.

Barnum's Early Career and Infamous Act

  • P.T. Barnum began his career in entertainment with a distasteful act that he later regretted.
  • Barnum promoted a show featuring an elderly African American woman, Joyce Heth, as George Washington's 161-year-old nanny, which was a fabrication.
  • He leased Heth and organized shows across the country, profiting significantly from this lie.
  • Barnum reflects on this early act as one of his least deserving efforts, recognizing it required little creativity and was morally questionable.
  • Despite his success with Heth, he was not proud of this act and it spurred him to become a better showman.

"This is the industry that Barnum is going to start working in. And this winds up being, I would say, the one act... he becomes infamous for... he's going to promote what he bills as George Washington's nanny... he essentially leased a slave and set up shows all across the country with this lie."

This quote describes the beginning of Barnum's career in the entertainment industry and his infamous act involving Joyce Heth, highlighting his initial lack of moral consideration in pursuit of profit.

"Barnum's admission that the event that would set his life on its course was the least deserving of all my efforts in the showline."

This quote reflects Barnum's own admission that his early act was the least deserving and signifies his later regret and desire to improve as a showman.

Barnum's Struggles and Various Endeavors

  • After profiting from Joyce Heth, Barnum faced years of financial struggle and tried various jobs.
  • He worked as a dance troupe promoter, traveling showman, cologne manufacturer, seller of bears grease and Bibles, and even tried his hand at writing.
  • His many attempts at different businesses were not successful, and his family's health and financial situation worsened.
  • Barnum recognized the need for a significant change to improve his circumstances and support his family.

"Barnum would spend much of the five years after the death of Joyce on the road with various acts... he was determined to settle into something more permanent in New York, and none of these activities brought him much money."

This quote outlines Barnum's struggles in finding success after Joyce Heth's death and his desire to find a stable and profitable occupation.

"He heard that Scutter's American Museum was looking for a buyer... I began to realize seriously that I was at the very bottom of Fortune's ladder and that I had now arrived at an age when it was necessary to make one grand effort to raise myself above want."

Barnum's realization of his dire financial situation and his family's needs drove him to consider purchasing Scutter's American Museum as a turning point in his career.

Acquisition of the American Museum

  • Barnum heard about the sale of Scutter's American Museum and saw it as an opportunity despite his low funds.
  • He used his cleverness and persuasive skills to negotiate a deal to buy the museum on credit.
  • Barnum approached a stranger, Francis, who owned the building housing the museum, and convinced him to finance the purchase.
  • His argument was that he would be a more reliable tenant than the current struggling owners, the Scutter family.

"The museum was now for sale for $15,000. But even this was far more money than Barnum had at his disposal... Barnum replied, brass for silver and gold. I have none."

Barnum's lack of funds did not deter him from pursuing the museum; he relied on his courage and cleverness to negotiate a deal.

"He finds out who owns the actual building... and so he goes to this stranger... Arguing that he would be a more reliable tenant than the struggling scutter family."

This quote details Barnum's strategic approach to acquiring the American Museum by persuading the building's owner to finance the purchase based on Barnum's potential as a profitable tenant.

Barnum's Successful Museum Endeavors

  • Barnum aimed to attract the rising middle class with his museum, offering wholesome entertainment and educational exhibits.
  • He advertised the museum as containing an exhaustive collection of items, aiming to showcase "every single thing in existence."
  • Barnum's marketing strategies included emphasizing the exotic and expensive nature of his exhibits.
  • One of his most famous exhibits was the Fiji mermaid, which was a fabricated creature made from parts of an orangutan, a baboon, and a salmon.
  • Barnum's marketing tactics for the Fiji mermaid involved planting stories in newspapers and creating a fictional narrative to drum up public interest.

"Barnum wanted to attract this rising middle class... They had more money and were more likely to spend it on wholesome activities... he aimed to acquire at least one example of every single thing in existence, living or dead."

Barnum's strategy for the museum targeted the middle class with a mix of entertainment and education, aiming to provide a comprehensive collection of exhibits.

"One of his most famous exhibits that he was known for is this thing called the Fiji mermaid... it had been skillfully assembled from parts of an orangutan, a baboon, and a salmon."

This quote describes the Fiji mermaid, an infamous exhibit at Barnum's museum, highlighting his ability to create compelling and bizarre attractions.

"Barnum's scheme to start the ball rolling was to have friends in other cities forward letters to New York newspapers that Barnum himself had secretly written."

This quote reveals Barnum's elaborate promotional tactics for the Fiji mermaid, which involved creating a buzz through orchestrated newspaper coverage.

Barnum's Promotion Tactics

  • Barnum utilized engravings and write-ups to fabricate the authenticity of the Fiji mermaid.
  • He manipulated media by offering exclusive access to different newspapers.
  • A pamphlet with images and stories was sold to generate hype before the exhibit.
  • Barnum used scarcity by advertising the exhibit as a limited opportunity.
  • After creating publicity, Barnum revealed ownership of the mermaid and promoted his museum.
  • Barnum's autobiography reflects on these tactics as indirect advertising for his museum.

"Barnum commissioned highly idealized engravings of beautiful, full breasted, unclothed mermaids with flowing blonde hair."

This quote highlights Barnum's use of appealing visuals to create a myth around the Fiji mermaid.

"Barnum offered three different New York papers exclusive access to one of the images and a report which he modestly acknowledged was well written."

Barnum skillfully played media outlets against each other to generate widespread interest.

"Barnum released for sale on the streets at a penny apiece, 10,000 copies of a pamphlet that contained all of the images and stories he had prepared."

The sale of pamphlets was a strategic move to spread the mermaid's story and entice the public.

"He understands that when you tell people, hey, you have a finite amount of time to do this, they're more likely to act now."

Barnum's understanding of human psychology allowed him to create urgency and drive immediate action.

"He owned the mermaid the whole time. He had acquired the mermaid for a precious sum."

Revealing ownership of the mermaid after the hype was a tactic to draw crowds to his museum.

"His purpose of in displaying the mermaid had been mainly to advertise the regular business of the museum."

This quote from Barnum's autobiography clarifies that the mermaid exhibit was a means to promote his museum.

Barnum's Personal and Professional Growth

  • Barnum's strategic planning led to a rapid turnaround of his museum's fortunes.
  • He experienced emotional challenges when leaving his family to promote his business abroad.
  • Barnum's promotion of Tom Thumb and other attractions gained international success.
  • He showed personal growth by addressing his drinking problem and negative traits.
  • Barnum's promotion of highbrow culture with Jenny Lind aimed to rebrand his image.

"He had now paid off all his debts from the museum and created a handsome surplus in the treasury."

Barnum's financial acumen turned his business around, clearing debts and generating profit.

"He had realized his ambitions in an amazingly short amount of time."

Despite earlier struggles, Barnum achieved significant success within two years.

"Tom Thumb winds up performing for the royal families in, I think, England and France."

Barnum's talent for promotion led to high-profile performances for his attractions.

"He could be rude. He would be drunk all the time."

Barnum's personal flaws, such as rudeness and alcoholism, are acknowledged.

"That was the end of my drinking, he wrote."

Barnum's decision to stop drinking marked a turning point in his personal life.

"He was now full of the spirit and could not stop spreading it."

After overcoming his drinking problem, Barnum became an advocate for temperance.

Barnum's Legacy as a Promoter

  • Barnum's focus was on the second-order effects and public perception of his promotions.
  • He used innovative strategies to maximize publicity and profitability.
  • His promotion of Jenny Lind was a calculated risk based on her reputation.
  • Barnum's understanding of promotion extended beyond mere entertainment.

"He is never focused on the obvious. He's always focused on the second order effect, the interpretation of the customer."

Barnum's promotions were designed with the audience's perception as a priority.

"He persuades his next door neighbor, a hatter named John Gannon, to go all out at the auction so that he could soak up some of the publicity it generated."

Barnum orchestrated publicity stunts, such as ticket auctions, to benefit both his show and participants.

"Barnum would make more than $10 million in today's dollars."

Barnum's financial success from promotions like Jenny Lind's tour was substantial.

"Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see."

This adage reflects the skepticism one might have towards Barnum's sensational promotions.

Early Business Ventures and Promotion Strategies

  • Genin, a hat maker, benefited from publicity by bidding at an auction, which increased his hat sales and wealth.
  • Barnum promoted Jenny Lind, earning significant profits, equivalent to tens of millions of dollars.
  • Despite financial success, Barnum's tendency to invest in various unsuccessful ventures led to bankruptcy.
  • His extravagant lifestyle and diverse investments, including real estate and failed inventions like the fire annihilator, contributed to his financial downfall.

"This guy bought this ticket, and it winds up building, making this guy's hat business even larger." "His promotion of Jenny Lind makes him a ton of money. I'm talking tens of millions, the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars."

These quotes illustrate how Barnum's promotional strategies could significantly enhance a business, as seen with Genin's hat sales, and how successful Barnum was in promoting Jenny Lind, earning him vast profits.

Financial Instability and Diverse Investments

  • Barnum's financial instability was due to his inability to focus on a single business.
  • His investments outside his area of expertise, such as in various schemes, often resulted in failure.
  • Barnum's ostentatious spending habits and unwieldy investments, like Iranistan, his lavish home, exemplified his financial recklessness.

"He winds up going broke, not just of his ostentatious spending, but because he just invested in a ton of things that never made any money."

This quote explains how Barnum's bankruptcy was not only due to his extravagant spending but also his poor investment choices across a range of unprofitable ventures.

Barnum's Bankruptcy and Rebuilding Efforts

  • Barnum's bankruptcy was a shock to him, leading to a period of depression and the loss of fair-weather friends.
  • He declined financial assistance, maintaining his confidence and determination to rebuild his fortune.
  • His experiences led him to become more charitable and generous as he regained his wealth.

"With some exceptions, Barnum's declined these many outpourings of financial support, publicly stating, while favored with health, I feel competent to earn an honest livelihood for myself and family."

The quote reflects Barnum's pride and self-reliance, choosing to rebuild his finances independently rather than accepting charity.

Public Lectures and Autobiography

  • Barnum reinvented himself as a public lecturer, delivering talks such as "The Art of Money Getting."
  • His autobiography and public lectures inspired many, including John Fish, who attributed his success to Barnum's teachings.
  • Barnum's second marriage to Fish's daughter further intertwined his personal and professional life.

"Barnum now reinvented himself again as a public lecturer. He took the advice of American friends in London to give a talk called the art of money getting."

This quote highlights Barnum's ability to pivot and reinvent his career, utilizing his experiences and knowledge to engage in public speaking and influence others.

Influence on Others and Cultural Impact

  • Barnum's autobiography sold over a million copies, influencing notable figures like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).
  • His life story served as inspiration for others, demonstrating the power of resilience and self-promotion.

"Samuel Clemens began an after dinner habit of reading from Barnum's recently published struggles and triumphs."

The quote indicates the far-reaching impact of Barnum's life story, inspiring the legendary writer Mark Twain, among others.

Transition to Circus Business

  • Barnum's later life included a successful partnership with Bailey in the circus business.
  • He recognized his strengths in promotion and allowed Bailey to manage the circus's day-to-day operations.
  • The Barnum and Bailey Circus became a lasting legacy, enduring for over a century.

"The aging showman realized that he had finally met his match, and he concluded it would be wiser to join them than to continue competing with them."

This quote captures Barnum's strategic decision to partner with Bailey, recognizing the value in collaboration over competition.

Barnum's Death and Legacy

  • Barnum's death was widely mourned, with extensive obituaries celebrating his life and contributions.
  • His legacy continued through the ongoing success of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, cementing his place in history.

"Two days after the interview, he asked Nancy to stay with him every moment of the little time that is left."

The quote poignantly reflects Barnum's final moments, emphasizing the personal side of his life and the end of an era marked by his death.

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