Barnum's American Museum, Broadway and Ann Street, 1851
REFLECTING back on his illustrious career, P. T. Barnum writes "At the outset of my career I saw that everything depended upon getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about "rare spectacle."1 Predisposed to invention and deception, it is no wonder that P.T. Barnum came to find his calling in the propagation spectacles in his American Museum. During a period of American history when the very world in which people lived had changed rapidly due to the advent of machine reproduction, Barnum's museum served an important function by allowing the middle class to develop a sense of their own normalcy in contrast to that of the "freak." Under the guise of entertainment and education the American Museum became the foremost house of spectacle of popular culture.

Barnum's experiences with Joice Heth and the Aaron Turner traveling circus revealed the lucrative potential that lie in the world of entertainment, and Barnum admits "I always regarded it [traveling as a showman] not as an end, but as a means to something better."2 After returning home to New York City in 1841, Barnum did not have to wait long until his most profitable business endeavor took shape in the form of his American Museum. Years later he admitted to having no idea, "I was to make a sensation on two continents; and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear before the public in the character of a showman."3

Museum quotation

New York City offered Barnum the prime location to establish his character as a "showman." By the time the Barnum's moved there in 1834, the city had over a quarter of a million residents. The growing city population caused a rise in the development of concert halls, theatres, and restaurants, and the establishment of the dime museum provided yet another manner of entertainment for the public. Barnum, however, was not the first to establish this type of museum in the city. Charles Wilson Peale, famous for his portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, established his museum in 1788. The museum exhibited both Peale's paintings as well as his large collection of taxidermied animals.4 In 1841 Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum located on Broadway and Ann Street and by 1843 Peale's Museum had gone out of business and he purchased Peale's collection for $7,000. Upon the acquisition of the museum Barnum writes, "I was still in show business, but in a settled, substantial phase of it, that invited industry and enterprise, and called for ever earnest and ever heroic endeavor."5

Table of Contents | Next page