Barnum's World

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


This is P. T. Barnum, who might be called the Father of pop culture illusionism. Born in Connecticut in 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum grew up working the counter at his Father's general store. "We are apt to believe that sharp trades, especially dishonest tricks and unprincipled deceptions are confined to the city," he later wrote of that work, but in the store "the customers cheated us in their fabrics; we cheated the customers with our goods. Each party expected to be cheated, if it was possible. Our eyes, and not our ears, had to be our masters. We must believe little that we saw, and less that we heard."

Barnum concluded that people wanted to be cheated, or at least that they wanted the chance to test their wits. By 1850 he had become America's most famous showman, promoting musical and theatrical tours and exhibiting a promiscuous collection of wonders at his "American Museum" in New York. Barnum's museum included the world's largest and smallest man, the world's largest elephant, a genuine mermaid from Fiji, and a wide range of other curiosities that blurred the line between hyperbole and deception. It was the biggest tourist attraction in New York, probably in the United States, until it burned down at the end of the Civil War.

Barnum's Museum image

Barnum's museum was very different from modern museums. To modern eyes, it seems like a jumble of unconnected, different things. It was a strange place, famous for being controversial, disturbing, scary, funny, dishonest. You might think of it as being like televison today. It gives us an extraordinary look at the popular culture of America in the 1850s and 60s

Updated | April 2004

Portrait of P.T Barnum