IN The Incorporation of America, Allan Trachtenberg describes how everyday life experience transformed in the late nineteenth century.1 The advent of mechanized reproduction led to an emergence of increased visual experience in the way of advertisements, department store displays, and newspapers and magazines. Phineas Taylor Barnum embodies the art of spectacle that pervaded the culture of the Gilded Age in America. During his lifetime and after, P.T. Barnum is perceived as the successful self-made businessman; an archetypal character who has generated his own mythical status in American culture. The author of several autobiographies, Barnum was continuously reinventing himself and chronicling his art of "humbug." Barnum himself was the quintessential nineteenth-century self-made man. He lived for entertainment because he knew that there was a profit to be made.
In today's world the name P. T. Barnum generally conjures up images of the circus, Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth." The most indelible mark Barnum left on American culture, however, is his American Museum. Everything from human and animal oddities to small scale models of Niagara Falls to the performance of the temperance play The Drunkard had their own moment in the spotlight in Barnum's museum. Yet, it is not just Barnum's museum that epitomizes the culture of spectacle during this period of American history. Some individuals saw Barnum's influence over American culture as destructive. Novelist Charles Dudley Warner declared in 1893 that American society suffered from "superficiality" and "boastfulness" which led to both moral and artistic degradation. Warner stated, "I am sure, also, that it is not the final expression of the American spirit, that which will represent its life or its literature. I trust it is a transient disease, which we may perhaps call by a transient name-Barnumism."2
Barnum's stationary featured his own likeness in a sunburst.
The purpose of this site is to provide the viewer with a glimpse into the world of spectacle à la Barnum to see how this "barnumization" of American culture first began. The site begins with an overview of Barnum's modest beginnings by examining his foray into show business with the Joice Heth exhibit. A critical analysis of Barnum's American Museum follows as well as a deconstruction of Barnum's advertising techniques in his famous "What Is It?" exhibit. The Exhibit Room also provides the viewer with a sampling of some of Barnum's more popular exhibits. Understanding why people were willing to offer their patronage to a place that exhibited human "freaks" is difficult because based on our own cultural standards today's society would be morally opposed to exhibiting disabled people for the sake of spectacle. With this in mind, it is important to view this site with its proper cultural context. Considering the increasing social stratification that occurred during this time, participating in a freak show promised a potentially lucrative form of employment. Ultimately, the goal of this site is not only to entice the viewer visually but also to engage the viewer in an intellectual examination of the nineteenth-century culture of spectacle.
Table of Contents | Visit Barnum's Museum | View the Exhibits | Barnum's Advertising Methods