Contrary to legend, he never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Phineas Taylor Barnum was a businessman, hoaxer, and impresario who provided entertainment to a nation hungry for it. “I am a showman by profession . . . and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” Barnum wrote defiantly in his autobiography. In an authoritative biography of Barnum, author Neil Harris, professor of history at the University of Chicago, describes the culture and climate of America in the 19th century that produced such an outsized, and sometimes outrageous, figure. Harris has written widely on various aspects of the evolution of American cultural life and on the social history of art and design.
Q: Circuses had a powerful hold on the imagination of 19th century Americans. Remind us: what space in American’s lives did the spectacle of the circus fill?
19th century Americans traveled much less than their children and grandchildren, and had limited access to good photographic reproductions, especially in color. Much of the natural world, outside their own country, as well as the built world, had to be known primarily through description. Zoos were just being created. The circus, especially the touring circus, brought to towns and cities glimpses of the exotic, animals only dreamed about. It also brought elaborate spectacle, the largest of the circuses employing hundreds of performers at one time. This was, of course, before movie going became common. Acts of heroism on the trapeze and among the animal trainers, and clowns, added to the excitement. The circus provided, for a few hours, escape from daily routine, and symbolized, whatever its reality, the free life of the road. Everything about it–smells, music, crowds— exaggerated reality. Thus its annual arrival was greeted with enormous anticipation.
Q: P.T. Barnum is a paradox: he was a showman, hoaxer, and promoter. And yet he seemed to be conservative by nature: he was an abolitionist, a temperance speaker, and, as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut he enforced liquor and prostitution laws. Was there a distinct private and professional Barnum?
There certainly was a private Barnum, and for me he has proved very difficult to ferret out. He exulted in publicity, and his autobiography went into great detail about his living style. Yet he remains, as you point out, paradoxical in a series of ways. Obviously he changed somewhat as he grew into an extremely successful businessman, a millionaire and a member of the establishment. He took chances early in life that he probably wouldn’t have later, although he remained a speculator at heart and was willing to invest large sums of money on uncertain returns, if he found the prospects exciting. He began as a Jacksonian Democrat and ended as an orthodox Republican. He did retain liberal views about religion; he disliked sectarianism. But in the end he followed self-interest as his guiding principle.
Q: Barnum spent lavishly, excessively. He and Tom Thumb lived like kings in Europe for three years, and on his rerun to New York, Barnum purchased whole museums. What was Barnum’s ambition in a nutshell?
I think it was to be successful, that is, to be rich, famous, and admired. And to do all this by the exercise of will and intelligence, selecting attractions that would appeal to large numbers of people and identifying himself with audacity and the unexpected. Again, I think there were changes across time. In the beginning he enjoyed the battle of wits with his audiences; toward the end he simply wanted to dazzle them. He valued money, and believed that personal wealth testified to many personal virtues. He was unashamed about pursuing material gain, and lectured on just how to do it. He also believed in comfort, and probably could fit within Thorstein Veblen’s definition of conspicuous consumption. But, like everything else he did, he turned this conspicuous consumption into profit, reveling in the celebrity that certain kinds of expenditures brought him.
Q: And then there was Barnum, the impresario. He brought Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to the United States creating “Lind mania” in major cities. What did Barnum understand about Americans in the mid-19th century that allowed him to guess, with almost unerring accuracy, what they wanted for entertainment?
Barnum had a genius for promoting his attractions, and I think believed that there was almost nothing he could not sell to the public, given enough time and money. He was a merchandiser of talent and of oddity, and also recognized that Americans of his generation were— this in the Jenny Lind era at least— starved for public pleasures. This was not yet an urban world; theater going was uncommon, people worked hard, European traditions of carnival and holiday making were, with some exceptions, scarce.
So he set out to sanitize certain entertainment forms (Jenny Lind herself had abandoned opera in favor of recitals) and convince large numbers of people that enjoying themselves was not a sin. He was committed to publicity— he said once the only liquid one could never have too much of was printer’s ink— and demonstrated its power again and again. Even calamities— like the many fires that dogged his career— he turned to advantage. He also understood that bigger was generally better— so far as amusements were concerned, and identified himself with national ambition. Americans deserved to have the best, the rarest, and the biggest of whatever there was, Barnum argued, and by surrounding his attractions with stories he added narrative and anecdote to their existing appeals.
Q: It’s possible to draw a line from Barnum’s baby shows, beauty pageants, dog shows, poultry contests, and flower shows right through to “The Price is Right,” “Jeopardy,” and “The Miss America Pageant,” isn’t there? What’s the essential Barnum-esque element in all of this?
It’s possible to draw a line from Barnum to many contemporary entertainments, because, I suppose, the principles of satisfying mass audiences don’t change all that much. People enjoy competitions, they like celebrity, they value dramatic action, they are flattered by attention. Television shows, of the sort you mention, provided all this, they were reality heightening and they mingled promises of fortune with suspense and debate. I think Barnum could have been a successful TV producer. What he would have thought of social networking and our rapidly changing world of electronic entertainment I’m not sure. I’m trying to figure that out myself.
Q: The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport is housed in a very unusual-looking building. As an art critic and social historian, would you describe it?
The Barnum Institute of Science and History (he established it before it became a museum in later years) was a serious educational enterprise, and I’d say it was a building that took itself seriously. Built in 1883, while Barnum was alive, of red sandstone, with Spanish tile roofs and wonderfully varied windows, it expresses what some would call a Richardsonian Romanesque character, mingled with an eclectic mix of gables, towers, and domes, that blend various architectural traditions. Its exuberance is typical of many Victorian buildings of that era, and its irregularity may appeal to those who find the regular geometries of modernism a bit boring. The surface decoration, and the circular frieze below the dome, add still more interest. I’m happy it is still with us.
Neil Harris will present the life of P.T. Barnum, and sign his book, Humbug: the Art of P.T. Barnum, Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm in Dodd Auditorium on the campus of the University of Mary Washington.