Young Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum

Born on July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum gained his appreciation for the art of entertainment from his grandfather, a lover of practical jokes. Barnum writes in his memoirs, "My grandfather would go farther, wait longer, work harder, and contrive deeper, to carry out a practical joke, than for anything else under heaven.1 Barnum likened himself to his grandfather's love of entertainment at the expense of others: "I am almost sorry to say that I am his counterpart; for although nothing that I can conceive of delights me so much as playing off one of those dangerous things, and although I have enjoyed more hearty laughs in the planning and executing them than from any one source in the world, have generally tried to avoid giving offence, yet I have many times done so."2


As a young boy, Barnum worked on his family's farm in Bethel, Connecticut. Farm work was not to his liking: "My aversion to hand-work, on the farm or otherwise, continued to be manifested in various ways, all of which was generally set down to the score of laziness. I believe, indeed, I had the reputation of being the laziest boy in town, probably because I was always busy at head-work to evade the sentence of gaining bread by the seat of the brow."3 When Barnum's father died in 1825, the boy had the responsibility of taking care of his four brothers and sisters. To make ends meet Barnum took up lottery schemes where he awarded green bottles and tinware to the winners. Barnum's grandfather was pleased with his grandson's scheme, and he describes the old man's appreciation in his memoirs: "My grandfather enjoyed my lottery speculation very much, and seemed to agree with many others, who declared that I was indeed "a chip off the old block."4 Ever ready to turn a profit, Barnum opened a fruit and candy store with the help of his grandfather three years later.

In 1829 Barnum married Charity Hallett. Four years later, Barnum moved his family to New York City to seek his fortune. Here he opened a boarding house and a grocery store. Shortly after their arrival in the city Barnum would enter into his first adventure as a showman by exhibiting an elderly African-American woman, Joice Heth. After exhibiting Ms. Heth, Barnum joined Aaron Turner's Traveling Circus, yet after several years Barnum knew that this was not his calling. He reflects: "I was thoroughly disgusted with the trade of a travelling showman...yet I always regarded it, not as an end, but as a means to something better."5 Portrait of Charity Hallett

Charity Hallett


In 1841, Barnum established his American Museum in New York City which enjoyed a 24-year run until it burned to the ground on July 13, 1865. Years later in 1880 Barnum merged with James Anthony Bailey to form the now infamous Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1883 Barnum's earnings from the circus totaled $1,419,498.6 By 1891 Barnum's heart was beginning to fail, yet he maintained his self-spectacle until the end. Barnum was curious as to how people would remember him so he granted The Evening Sun permission to print his obituary prematurely. The headline ran, "GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM. He Wanted To Read His Obituary; Here It Is."7 On April 7, 1891, less than a month after the obituary appeared, Phineas Taylor Barnum died from heart failure.

Table of Contents | Visit the Museum | View the Exhibits | Barnum's Advertising Methods