The End of the Show

On April 30, 1980 Barnum opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre. It seems only fitting that the world's ultimate showman should have a musical in his honor. By the time of his death in 1891, Barnum's name and legacy began to take on a life of their own. Barnum democratized entertainment for the masses, and popular culture would never be the same. While Barnum admittedly created spectacles because of their money-making potential, he nonetheless provided the possibility for the individual to become a spectacle both as one of his "freaks" in his exhibits or as a museum patron visiting the most popular house of spectacle in town. Although Barnum should be remembered for his American Museum and his involvement with the circus, his contribution to American marketing and advertising methods forever changed the way in which information is presented to the public. Barnum's advertising savvy and his ornate American Museum worked in tandem to generate public interest precisely during a time when Americans life itself was being inundated with spectacle.

Image of Barnum musical
Jim Dale potrays the infamous showman in the musical Barnum.

Public interest in freak shows began to wane in the 1930s and 1940s as the public became more knowledgeable about other cultures and the exhibited "freaks" were seen within in the context of their medical conditions and not just their inherent "otherness." Yet, we continue to be a society fascinated by spectacle in which we can fashion our own "spectacular" self. The "barnumization" of American culture permeates today's society thanks to individuals like Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. Even the Internet has enabled individuals to bring spectacle into the privacy of their own homes. P. T. Barnum, however, should be remembered as the first true "ringmaster." Thanks to Barnum, American society remains a culture in which spectacle is an inherent part of everyday experience.

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