March 02, 2018

An undated painting of P.T. Barnum Credit: AP Images

He was a huckster, a showman, and a consummate businessman. P.T. Barnum and his exhibitions presented “freaks” and oddities from abroad, while also shaping the definition of what it means to be an American. We speak with Stephen Mihm, editor of the book, "The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself," about Barnum’s lasting contribution to American culture.   

Three Takeaways:

  • Barnum turned normal people into celebrities well before reality TV gave us Snooki. Mihm says Tom Thumb, a dwarf that Barnum groomed into an actor, is sometimes considered “the first genuine celebrity.”       
  • One of Barnum’s most famous exhibitions featured a woman who claimed to be the 160-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. Over time, Barnum reinvigorated interest in the woman, whose name was Joice Heth, by playing up speculation that she was actually a robot.
  • Today, many of Barnum’s exhibitions are considered insensitive and racist. But Barnum’s ideas about race changed over time. For example, he was originally pro-slavery, but Mihm says during the Civil War, Barnum became an abolitionist and one of the staunchest Unionists in New York City.        

More reading:

  • The Smithsonian points out that Hugh Jackman’s depiction of Barnum in the new movie, “The Greatest Showman”, isn’t very realistic. 
  • Many people compare P.T. Barnum to Donald Trump. Mihm explains in The New York Times why that’s not an accurate comparison. 
  • Want to know more about Tom Thumb? The BBC dives in.

P.T. Barnum, Stephen Mihm, showman

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