Biography of P.T. Barnum, showman and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Readers can visit Barnum's American Museum; meet Tom Thumb, the miniature man (only 39 in. tall) and his tinier bride (32 in.); experience the thrill Barnum must have felt when, at age 60, he joined the circus; and discover Barnum's legacy.
Passage for discussion: "But Barnum wasn't always good-natured when it came to his wife. At times, he was downright meant o her. Once, during a boat trip to Ontario, Canada, in 1843, Charity got seasick. Instead of being sympathetic, Barnum made fun of her in front of the other passengers. While Charity moaned miserably, he kept everyone else aboard 'in a half-suffocation of laughter' by telling her disgusting stories to make her feel worse" (76).
That's about as much as I knew – or thought I knew – going into this biography, coupled with a skepticism that was little more than a glorified snake oil salesman. Nothing like a well-written biography intended for middle grade readers (and up) to clear the air.
First, the quote: Barnum never said it, one of his competitors did, apparently cheesed that Barnum was able to corner the market on drawing a crowd. The circuses came later in his career, built from a combination of his showmanship and the desire to mix the curiosities from his "museum" with a traveling show full of animal acts and clowns. In between there was his American Museum of alleged artifacts from history (many of them fake) and the type of human curiosities generally associated with traveling freak shows.
If Barnum's life seems like the natural extension of Professor Harold Hill's fast-talking salesmanship it's clear Barnum was born for the life he led. As a boy he was successful in drawing a crowd and making money from them. And what's most surprising is how genial he seems, how he never regarded the public as the "suckers" despite the importance of making money from their gullibility. He had a genuine regard for what we would probably call low entertainment and discovered that the general public didn't mind "harmless" hoaxes.
Fleming makes this a breezy read, well-documented with a strong narrative thread, and actually fun. Makes me wish there were more biographies like this when I was a kid.
Personal reflection: I love the circus and it was interesting to see his upbringing and how he came to get into the business of being a showman.
Class use: Students can learn about the circus, and the history behind it.
Throughout this biography, there are numerous examples of economic concepts at work. Notably, the reader learns about Barnum’s upbringing and how he began manual labor at a young age. His parents enforced in him the notions of earning and saving money, with Barnum recalling “my father did not miss an opportunity for a financial lesson.” With these lessons at hand, Tale began saving pennies by age 5 and paying for his own clothing by age 7. By age 15, the elder Barnum had passed away and Tale was responsible for earning money to support the whole household.
But Barnum was never a fan of working with his hands, preferring instead to work with his head and come up with unique ways to make money. One of his schemes revolved around making candy to sell to weary and hungry volunteer soldiers after a day’s training. Another involved buying a large quantity of cheap green bottles and then offering them as prizes in a lottery at his uncle’s grocery shop. These examples, along with others, show Barnum’s almost innate understanding of human reasoning (he later wrote of the lottery incident, “People like to win, no matter how small the prize.”) and his ability to capitalize on that knowledge for his monetary gain.
In his later teen years, Barnum moved to New York City, continuing to work as a grocer’s clerk, but also learning about business with the hopes of one day running his own. Fleming writes, “He wanted one [job] where he could use his imagination and energy. He wanted to be is own boss. And he wanted to make lots of money.” Barnum engaged in various odd jobs over the years, including working in small circuses. Eventually, Barnum fell into buying and exhibiting natural curiosities – often the cringe-worthy practice of displaying people deemed as “other” enough to be astonishing – and he used all the lessons about human nature he gleaned up until this point to sell his show. For instance, his first exhibit was of Joice Heth, a slave who was reputed to be more than 160 years old and to have been originally owned by George Washington’s father. When visiting crowds started to die down, Barnum planted a false rumor that Heth was really a mechanical robot voice by Barnum himself in order to drive up ticket sales once again. Barnum concluded, “Controversy is good for business.” This early exhibit raked in money for Barnum – reportedly earning each week the equivalent of $35,000 today. He later acquired oddities and rarities to make up the exhibits in his Barnum’s American Museum, using all his past job experiences and business savvy to create an experience that astounded his museum-goers and made hundreds of thousands of dollars (the equivalent of millions today) in profits for Barnum.
After decades of running his museum, Barnum finally retired only to find himself in need of a new project to combat boredom. When he received a letter asking to become a partner in a small traveling circus, he jumped at the chance and launched a new career in the circus. He went through several partners before teaming up with James Bailey and at last the famous Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus was born.
Fleming has clearly done her research with this biography of P.T. Barnum, using various (and sometimes humorous) anecdotes to move the story along and provide fascinating tidbits about Barnum’s life, his family, and the stars of his museum and circus. She intersperses her writing with quotes from primary source materials including Barnum’s autobiography, personal letters, and relevant newspaper articles. The book also includes reproductions of archival materials such as photographs, engravings, advertisements, ticket stubs, and so forth. The final product is a biography so riveting that children and teens (and possibly even adults) will not want to put it down.
I reviewed this book for EconKids.