About a year ago, American Heritage Magazine polled people to find out who the one hundred greatest Americans of all time were. Some of the conclusions I agreed with, Franklin Delano Roosevel and Andrew Carnegie definitely earned a place on that list. I even had to agree with Bill Gates being posted there as much as I despise most aspects of the company he operates. Placing Bill Clinton and some of the more recent ones there made me wonder what some people were smoking and possibly not inhaling. However, notably absent was P.T. Barnum. Life Magazine gave him the title of one of the greatest people of the millennium.
P.T. Barnum may not have been a great patriot or a war hero, but he was the first American to truly understand how to really market the products that he sold. In fact, considering we are the nation that sells the world’s most abundant natural resource around the globe at $1.00 a bottle when in most cases it is nothing more than filtered tap water, American companies have proven the most famous quote attributed to him, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Due to technological innovations and considering how often we sell the stuff, perhaps we should update that for the technological age and say that there’s a sucker born every nanosecond. Despite being given credit for the phrase, there is no proof that the saying originated with Barnum. He may have made his living exploiting the gullible nature of people but he himself acknowledged that the public is often wiser than many people realize.
Barnum started his show business career at age 25 by obtaining the services of Joice Heth. Heth claimed to be George Washington’s Nursemaid and have lived through sixteen decades of life. The handbills for the shows he ran called her “unquestionably the most astounding and interesting curiosity in the world.” It worked apparently. The shows involving the woman made over $1,500 weekly.
The acquisition of Scudder’s Museum on Broadway in New York would further secure his claim to fame. The museum claimed to display over half a million natural and artificial curiosities from all corners of the world. Barnum had one problem with the displays though. People stood in the museum too long, lowering ticket sales. Rather than policing the amount of time people spent in the museum, signs appeared that said “See the Amazing Egress” and displayed arrows pointing to the museum’s exit. The sign worked and patrons who went followed this sign to see this particular curiosity had to pay a quarter to reenter the museum.
His name however will forever be associated with the circus. Who has not heard of Barnum & Bailey’s Wringling Brothers circus, i.e., “the greatest show on Earth?” His success in the circus and particularly with one elephant added a new word to the English language – Jumbo. He first teamed up with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchison in 1881. The first alliance was only temporary although they would later rejoin forces permanently in 1886.
Bridgeport, Connecticut, the town that hosts his grave today has a P.T. Barnum museum in which you can track his life and career from Bethel to his death in Bridgeport and has a special selection dedicated to his greatest masterpiece, his circus. The greatest showman also earned a distinction that few people do. The New York Times let him read his obituary before his death in 1891. According to the circus’s website his last words were asking about the take at the box office.
Whether we think of him as a notorious schemer preying on the gullibility of people or a great showman who simply knew how to sell his wears, P.T. Barnum may not have been “the patron saint of advertisers” as the Life magazine article claimed, but he truly did deserve a spot on the list of 100 greatest Americans. If you are so inclined, you might be able to find his autobiography and see what he had to say about the matter.