P.B. Barnum: an American showman.
Phineas Taylor Barnum was almost a Yankee Doodle Dandy, but missed it by one day. When Barnum was born 200 years ago, on July 5, 1810, the world of “show business” changed forever. He is best known as an American showman. He made his mark with such attractions as the FeeJee Mermaid, General Tom Thumb, Barnum’s American Museum, Jenny Lind, Jumbo the elephant, and, of course, The Greatest Show On Earth, which today bears the name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. This year (2010), that best-known of all circuses to have ever existed, celebrates 140 years with “Barnum’s Funundrum,” a salute to Barnum’s 200th Birthday.
Barnum was a master at using the newspapers of his day to promote his various enterprises. A.H. Saxon’s book, “Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum,” printed a fascinating letter written by Barnum to his partner James A. Bailey at the end of Barnum’s life. In it Barnum says:
“I am indebted to the press of the United States for almost every dollar which I possess and for every success as an amusement manager which I have ever achieved. The very great popularity which I have attained both at home and abroad I ascribe almost entirely to the liberal and persistent use of the public journals of this country.”
Collecting Barnum and Barnum-related items is as varied as Barnum’s numerous careers. Shown here is just a sampling of items relating to the life of “America’s Greatest Showman.”
The books listed below are an excellent starting point to learn more about his many careers. For a related story see P.T. Barnum: An Accidental Collectible.
This is a first edition copy of the earliest Barnum autobiography. The title is “The Life of P.T. Barnum Written by Himself.” It was published by Redfield in 1855. Value is $175. Over the ensuing years Barnum wrote many other autobiographies. There were many versions of “Struggles and Triumphs; or Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum.” Many of these can be found for as little as $10. When Barnum started his first circus in 1871 you could buy a copy of “Struggles” for $1.50 and get a free ticket to the circus. By 1873 he was selling the book at the circus for $1 but you had to buy your own ticket for 50 cents.
This letter was written by Barnum in 1860 on letterhead of the American Museum, Barnum’s first museum, which was destroyed by fire in 1865. This letter was purchased in the early 1970s from Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston for $35. Today the letter is valued at $150 to $200.
Barnum & Van Amburgh’s Museum and Menagerie operated in 1866 and 1867. This 70-page program has information about all the animals in the menagerie and a biographical sketch of Barnum & Van Amburg. The last two pages give a recap of the daily dollar receipts for the Jenny Lind concerts promoted by Barnum. Value is $100.
This little booklet is dated 1872 and is titled “Genl. Tom Thumb’s 3 Years Tour Around The World,” by Sylvester Bleeker. It contains 144 pages. Prices on the Internet range from $85 to $325.
Charles Sherwood Stratton was billed by Barnum as General Tom Thumb beginning in 1842 when Stratton was five years old. During his lifetime, Tom Thumb gave a command performance before Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and other invited guests at Buckingham Palace. He toured throughout other European cities.
Following his wedding to Lavinia Warren, Thumb and his bride visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House as part of their honeymoon trip. This CDV shows the couple in their wedding clothes. The back says the CDV was published by Edward Anthony from a negative by Matthew Brady. The signatures on the back are printed. Value is $25-$30. There are many different CDV images of Tom Thumb.
In 1871 Barnum entered the circus business. This 16-page courier promotes that first year. Value is $100-$150. For more information about circus couriers, see my article: ‘The Circus Is Coming!’ Circus Couriers Whet Communities’ Appetites.
In September 1889, Barnum & Bailey left for England. The show appeared at the Olympia in London from Nov. 11, 1889 to Feb. 14, 1890. This colorful 16-page courier promotes that period. Value is $100.
Edward Bierstadt created this Artotype photo image of Jumbo the elephant. It is mounted like a cabinet card. Under the image it says “Jumbo.” On the left side the text reads “The largest elephant ever seen by mortal man, wild or in captivity.” The right side says “The property of Messrs. Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson. Cost $30,000.” Value of this photo is $50.
Many advertisers took advantage of the Jumbo craze and used his image in their trade cards. This set above shows five trade cards advertising Clark O.N.T. Cotton Thread. Jumbo trade cards are available for as little as $5-$10.
Postcards like this is are quite common and can be found for $5 or less.
A monument of P.T. Barnum was erected in Sea Side Park in Bridgeport, Conn. You can see the monument in the postcard image above. This engraved invitation was sent to guests to witness the official unveiling of the statue on July 4, 1893 two years after his death. Value is $25-$30.
P.T. Barnum placed this advertisement to sell stock so he could build P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome, which opened in 1874 on the site of Madison Square Garden. This ad is valued at $25.
Books for further reference:
“P.T. Barnum America’s Greatest Showman An Illustrated Biography,” by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.
“Humbug The Art of P.T. Barnum,” by Neil Harris. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1973.
“Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum,” Edited and Introduced by A.H.Saxon. Published by Columbia University Press, 1983.
“P.T. Barnum The Legend and the Man,” by A.H. Saxon. Published by Columbia University Press, 1889.
“The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader,” Edited by James W. Cook. Published by University of Illinois Press, 2005.
“Barnum’s Own Story,” by P.T. Barnum (a compilation of several of Barnum’s autobiographies including several editions of “Struggles and Triumphs.” Published by Dover Publications, 1961.
“The Fabulous Showman,” by Irving Wallace. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1959.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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