“The Greatest American Showman”: P. T. Barnum, Popular Culture and Nineteenth Century America

Posted by on Aug 30th, 2012 | 0 Comments

When Phineas Taylor Barnum moved to New York City in 1834, few could have guessed just how influential he would become, shaping popular taste throughout the country and beyond. Millions went to see his amusements, while the press constantly discussed his merit—or lack thereof.  The decades before and during the Civil War brought forth some of P. T. Barnum’s most famous exhibits and performances. However, it was no accident that his contributions to the entertainment landscape took the nation by storm. Barnum understood better than most the needs and desires of a nineteenth-century America experiencing drastic economic changes and obsessing over the ideals of middle-class gentility. From his itinerant shows to the permanent “American Museum” in New York, Barnum used his attractions to provide stability and answers in a time of change.

This year, historian and biographer Neil Harris of the University of Chicago presented a lecture on P.T. Barnum at the University of Mary Washington, exploring some of these themes. Check out the following talk to learn more about Barnum’s life and the era he helped to shape. Additionally, an interview with Harris can be found here.

Humbug— The Art of P.T. Barnum from Great Lives at UMW on Vimeo.

Highlights from Barnum’s Collection of Spectacles:

The Fejee Mermaid: In addition to his wild exhibits, Barnum displayed a number of legitimate natural history items from skeletal remains to large, living animals. Yet, always fond of a spectacle, he still included a number of hoaxes from the natural world, chief among them the “Fejee Mermaid.” In actuality a creation made by merging parts of a fish and a monkey, audiences flocked to see whether the Fejee Mermaid was real or just another one of Barnum’s “humbugs.”

  • Find related archival materials here.

Joice Heth: Marking his earliest foray into the industry, Barnum purchased “Joice Heth,” an elderly African-American woman who was advertised as the nurse of young George Washington—setting her age at the unthinkable 161. The controversy over her age and legitimacy was used to create more public interest in seeing her. Could anyone really be that old? Was she an automaton? Only by visiting the exhibit for oneself could a person make a judgment—and only by paying admittance could one make this visit. Ultimately, the audience’s opinion was of no real consequence to Barnum’s bottom line. Whether one believed his claims or not, people paid to see Joice Heth—and Barnum made a profit.

…The greatest curiosity in the world, and the most interesting, particularly to Americans, is now exhibiting at the Saloon fronting on Broadway, in the building recently erected for the dioramic view, JOICE HETH, nurse to Gen. George Washington, (the father of our country,) who has arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years, as authentic documents will prove, and in full possession of her mental faculties…

She has been visited by crowds of ladies and gentlemen, among whom were many clergymen and physicians, who have pronounced her the most ancient specimen of mortality the oldest of them has ever seen or heard of, and consider her a very great curiosity… ((Reprinted in P.T. Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, p. 153))

  • Find related archival materials here.

Jenny Lind: Before “Linsanity” there was “Lindomania!” A Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind was an unknown to American audiences (and even Barnum himself) until Barnum took the risk of bringing her to the United States in 1850 for a concert tour. Despite her obscurity, Barnum was able to harness the power of advertising and hype to create a cult of celebrity around “the Swedish Nightingale” before she even arrived in the country. Lind’s shows sold out before anyone had even heard her voice, and she managed to become one of the most popular singers of the nineteenth century.

Jenny Lind’s first Concert is over, and all doubts are at an end. She is the greatest singer we have ever heard, and her success is all that was anticipated from her genius and her fame. As this is something of an era in our history of Art, we give a detailed account of all that took place on the occasion…

…Now came a moment of breathless expectation. A moment more, and Jenny Lind, clad in a white dress which well became the frank sincerity of her face, came forward through the orchestra. It is impossible to describe the spontaneous burst of welcome which greeted her. The vast assembly rose as one man, and for some minutes nothing could be seen but the waving of hands and handkerchiefs, nothing heard but a storm of tumultuous cheers… ((“Jenny Lind’s First Concert,” New York Daily Tribune, 12 September 1850))

  • Find related archival materials here.

American dwarf entertainer Charles Sherwood Stratton, a.k.a. Tom Thumb (1838-1883). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Tom Thumb: Like many other “living curiosities” put on display by Barnum, Tom Thumb (born Charles Sherwood Stratton) represented physical difference in the face of the “average” middle-class American who might visit Barnum’s American Museum. A dwarf, Tom Thumb started out with Barnum as a young child (though his age was understated in advertising), and with his precocity and ability to imitate historical figures, he was a huge hit among audiences. Below is Barnum’s description of Tom Thumb in his own words:

I took great pains to train my diminutive prodigy, devoting many hours to that purpose, by day and by night, and succeeded, because he had native talent and an intense love of the ludicrous. He became very fond of me. I was, and yet am, sincerely attached to him, and I candidly believe him at this moment to be the most interesting and extraordinary natural curiosity of which the world has any knowledge. ((Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, pp. 244-245))

  • Find related archival materials here.

For more information:

  • Visit The Lost Museum, a digital collection containing primary documents, images, essays and other activities relating to P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, one of New York’s most popular institutions until it burned down in 1865.

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