History of Phineas Barnum's American Museum in New York
A photograph of Barnum's American Museum, New York City.
“I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”—P.T. Barnum
Cabinet's of Curiosity:The Origin Of P.T. Barnum's Museum
Cabinet's of Curiosity were popular in Europe at least from the mid 1500's. They combined a fascination with the collection and display of items of art, culture, science and oddities collected from around the world. These collections of curiosities originated in the hands of the rich and elite. They spread to North American with the arrival of European settlers. Just as the elite of Europe reveled in showing off these collections, so too did the exhibition of unusual items develop as a show business igniting public fascination in science and the unusual.
P.T. Barnum is believed to be one of the first Americans to capitalize on the show business aspect of the "curiosity" kind of entertainment. Many cabinet's of curiosity operated as dime museums. Barnum, having acquired a large collection of curiosities from all over the world, opened the American Museum in 1841 in lower Manhattan. Beginning with physical artifacts, his idea blossomed into a much farther reaching idea of public entertainment.
Legacy of the Cabinet's of Curiosity
"I meant to make people talk about my Museum; to exclaim over its wonders; to have men and women all over the country say: "There is not another place in the United States where so much can be seen for twenty-cents as in Barnum's American Museum." — P.T. Barnum
Timeline Of The Barnum Museum Of Natural History
- In 1810, John Scudder opened his Dime Museum to the public with $50,000 worth of artifacts as well as many displays originally given to him as gifts.
- Barnum bought Scudder's Museum in 1841.
- Scudder's Museum contained a jumble of artifacts and oddities from around the world.
- Barnum's first museum was located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, from 1841 to 1865, across from St. Paul's Church in lower Manhattan of New York City.
- Between 1841 and 1865, about 38 million visitors paid 25 cents each to attend the museum
- In 1842 he obtained the Feejee Mermaid.
- Later in 1842, Barnum met Charles Sherwood Stratton, 4 years old at the time and a midget whom he called General Tom Thumb who starred at the American Museum and with Barnum for four decades.
- In 1843, Barnum purchased Charles Wilson Peale's museum collection after its closure, having been in operation since 1788.
- In 1844, Barnum and Tom Thumb had an audience in England with Queen Victoria.
- In 1850, Barnum introduced the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind to America.
- She performed her first American concert on September 11, 1850 at Castle Garden.
- In 1854, Barnum published his autobiography, "The Life of P.T. Barnum."
- In 1857, during a visit to Amsterdam, Barnum discovered Rudolph Lucasie and his Family, albinos of African descent who worked for Barnum as 'living curiosities' in his American Museum and later in his Circus.
- On July 13, 1865, the museum burned to the ground destroying the vast collection.
- In that same year, Barnum opened the New American Museum on Broadway, between Spring and Prince Streets.
- This museum also burned to the ground in 1868 on a winter day so cold that the water in the firemen's hoses froze.
Exhibits Of The Barnum American MuseumClick thumbnail to view full-size
P.T. Barnum's American Museum
The garish facade of the museum enticed patrons into the museum. Flags from around the world as well as paintings of important zoological specimens hung outside the museum. An orchestra played loud, discordant music to drive patrons inside the Museum. In addition to the physical displays, the museum also sold souvenirs as in present day museums including post-cards of exhibits. The museum housed a number of exhibits including artifacts and living specimens and for a 25 cent admission price, middle class patrons could view displays from the bizarre, to the educational including exhibits of natural history seen in its aquaria and menageries; as well as history in its paintings and wax figures and finally reform and drama in the Shakespearean plays and morality dramas shown in the theatre.
- The basement of the museum contained a large tank that housed hippopotami and beluga whales.
- The more elite patrons were appealed to with Peal's paintings of birds and animals.
He had a myriad of:
- exotic animal curiosities
- Ned the learned seal
- a loom run by a dog
- Grizzly Adam's trained bears
- human oddities
- wax figures
- glass blowers
- pretty baby contests
- taxidermy exhibits
- the trunk of a tree under which he claimed Jesus' disciples sat
- a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant
- scientific instruments
- modern appliances
- a rifle range
- an oyster bar
- a flea circus
- live Shakespeare stage dramas
- blackface minstrels
- morality plays including biblical tales and an adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
Although criticized for his 'unscientific' exhibits, Barnum realized that these very exhibits generated huge public interest. Sensational exhibits sold tickets. He began actively collecting new and bizarre items to display:
- the Feejee Mermaid ( a fake consisting of a mummified monkey's torso with a fish's tail)
- Mrs. Bates, the 7 foot-tall woman
- Mrs. Anna Swan, another 7 foot-tall woman
- Charles Stratton, a 3 foot-tall boy he renamed Tom Thumb.
- Chang and Eng the Siamese twins
- Josephine Boisdechene, the bearded lady.
- William Henry Johnston, billed as Zip the Pinhead who was displayed as a bizarre missing link.
Legacy Of Phineus Barnum's American Museum
P.T. Barnum was one of the greatest showmen on earth. He took the concept of the dime store museum and transformed it into a hugely successful venue using people's love of drama and the unusual. His business panache which included his model of pay-per view shows figured significantly in the successful development of the Dime Museum as well as the modern-day municipal museums. After his second museum was destroyed by fire, he applied his showmanship and love of the unusual and flamboyant to the business of the circus sideshow. Even today, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to Madison Square Garden every year.
Locations of Barnum's American Museums
Location of "P.T. Barnum’s American Museum from 1841 to 1865.
Location of P.T. Barnum's second American Museum which also burnt to the ground in 1868.
- The Lost Museum - Introduction
Visit www.ashp.cuny.edu/LM and take a 3-D tour of the Barnum's American Museum or browse the museum archive.
American Social History Productions Inc. The Barnum Museum. The Lost Museum. 2002-2006.
Strausbaugh, John. When Barnum Took Manhattan. The New York Times. November 9, 2007.
Wikipedia. Barnum's American Museum. Wikipedia. January 1, 2013.
Yamada, Takeshi.(penned by Dr. Eriko N. Bond). Takeshi Yamada On The Art of the Cabinet of Curiosity. 2007.