PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Love him or hate him, P.T. Barnum was a key player in the development of public relations.
© 2020 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

Now, 130 years after his death, Phineas Taylor Barnum remains a hot button for many public relations practitioners. They either love him or hate him, and it's often based on how high-minded they are and how they think public relations ought to be practiced.

Some prim and proper public relations people like to brush any references to P.T. Barnum -- as he's usually known -- under the rug, pretending he had nothing to do with public relations, but they can't. Barnum can't be ignored or down-played in the history of public relations or, for that matter, in the history of the United States. He was not only a master of promotion and publicity, a flamboyant spokesperson, and perhaps a con man, he was one of the richest and well known Americans of the 19th century.

Barnum was born in 1810. By the mid-1840s, he had made himself nationally and internationally known as a publicist, museum owner, "freak show" operator, and showman. From that time until he died in 1891 he was constantly in the public spotlight and on the front page of newspapers around the world as a business man, author, public speaker, and civic activist.

To fully understand and appreciate him, you have to realize that he lived through a time of incredible growth and excitement in the United States. When he was born, the United States had only 17 states. -- Ohio, the most recent, had become a state in 1803. -- By the time he died, there were 44. -- Wyoming, then the newest, had been admitted to the Union in 1890. -- In addition, the country which had 5 million inhabitants and reached from the Atlantic Ocean to the Allegheny and Cumberland Mountains when he was born grew to a population of more than 63 million people and reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean when he died. He had also experienced the birth of mass production and manufacturing as well as the development of steam power which brought railroads, steamships, and the ability to travel faster than a man -- or horse -- could run. Steam-powered printing presses had also brought the ability to print thousands of copies of books and newspapers and created true mass media. And, don't overlook the invention of the telegraph and the telephone, and photographs, and the electric light, and skyscrapers.


The Barnum & Bailey Circus was his greatest legacy.

Barnum's best-known and longest-lasting legacy was the Barnum and Bailey Circus which he dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth." It was established in 1881, just 10 years before his death. Barnum was in his 70s at the time and it was one of his last, great achievements. For the 10 previous years he had ran "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome." His new partner James Anthony Bailey, still in his mid-30s, ran a very successful competitor, the Cooper and Bailey Circus. Together, they made circus and entertainment history starting with their first big coup, acquiring Jumbo, "the world's largest elephant" from the London zoo despite Queen Victoria's objections.

Sadly, Barnum only lived a decade after this partnership began, but the circus continued to flourish long after his death. In 1919 it merged again and became the even-larger Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus which continued touring the United States every year until 2017. That's when the nationally-declining audiences for circuses finally forced it to close.


The circus wasn't Barnum's only claim to fame.

Decades before founding this circus, Barnum was established as one of the greatest showmen and entertainment promoters of all time. Much of this was done with traveling shows he took on tour up and down the East Coast. But, he also built Madison Square Garden to serve as a close-to-home venue for his shows so he wouldn't have to travel so much. Whether on the road or at home, he achieved prominence by making international celebrities of people like:

He had also turned non-humans into celebrities whom he exhibited in his American Museum in New York City. They included:

While there was no denying the reality of performers like Jenny Lind, many of the other attractions Barnum promoted and exhibited were, by his own admission, "humbugs," -- They weren't quite what they were advertised as being. -- For instance, most patrons quickly realized the Fejee Mermaid wasn't really an actual mermaid and that Joice Heth wasn't really 160 years old. Nonetheless, people continued to flock in to see them.


"Prince of Humbugs"

Barnum defended these "humbugs" which fooled thousands of people and helped him earn tens of thousands of dollars as being all in good fun. He said his outlandish claims were so tongue-in-cheek that no one could take them seriously and that they were meant to entertain the public. Surprisingly, there's plenty of evidence that this was true. Many people who paid to see his humbugs agreed. Some even came back and paid to see the humbugs a second time after they had figured out they were fakes. They said Barnum's "scams" were so much fun, it was worth paying to see them again.

Barnum loved operating like this and sometimes proudly, but laughingly, called himself "the Prince of Humbugs." He even publicly admitted that he sometimes resorted to "mildly deceitful ways" of getting people into his shows.

And, no one denied his ability to attract audiences, to stage spectacular events, and to turn previously-unknown persons into celebrities. For decades after his death, well into the 20th century, that's what the general public and the public relations profession remembered him for doing.


Fun-lover or fraud?

Barnum's critics -- And, there were many while he was living and generations later. -- called his "humbugs" frauds or hoaxes and bitterly condemned Barnum for perpetrating them. In their eyes, he was a total scoundrel and should be treated as such.

So, in the 1970s and `80s when political correctness began to assert itself, many public relations practitioners who became overly concerned with their professional image began looking more and more askance at P.T. Barnum and tried to distance themselves and their profession from him. Before this time, some practitioners may have viewed Barnum as a "black sheep" of the profession, someone who should not be emulated, but they never denied that he had practiced at least a rudimentary form of public relations and had helped the field grow into a thriving and respected profession. Now, the profession wanted nothing to do with him and vehemently denied that he had made any contribution to its development.

One of the biggest criticisms of Barnum was the assertion that he once said: "There's a sucker born every minute." However, none of his biographers ever reported him making this statement, and dozens of scholars who have looked for evidence that he said it have never found any evidence to support that claim. -- It appears to be a myth or an "urban legend." -- But, within the field of public relations, the false belief that he did say it has made Barnum an outcast who is no longer recognized for his contributions to the emergence of the profession.

Personally, I think he's gotten a bum rap and has been unfairly judged by contemporary standards instead of the norms of his own time. We need to re-review Barnum's life and times and once again recognize his role as an early practitioner of what eventually grew into today's public relations.


A recent biography offers new perspective.

Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson, a former columnist and book editor for USA Today, isn't the first, or even the second, third, or fourth, biography of Barnum. There have been dozens of them.

Barnum himself also wrote three autobiographies. The first was written when he was only 44 years old. The second, a greatly expanded version, was written 14 years later. And, the third, a more legacy-minded version, was written just two years before his death and subsequently had a final, posthumous chapter added by his widow.

So, what's different about Wilson's book? First and foremost, it's more balanced than most other books about Barnum. It's not a paean of praise from an idolizing fan. Nor is it a vitriolic rant spewing from a rabid critic. Like me, Wilson apparently believed there were already too many such treatments and that someone needed to counteract or at least moderate the predominantly negative light that's been cast on Barnum in recent decades. His introduction says: "We live in an ahistorical age, one that is quick to condemn historical figures using the standards of the present. We too easily dismiss them for their worst qualities even if they are counterbalanced or even heavily outweighed by their best qualities. Barnum's reputation today has fallen so far that his name often evokes comparisons to scoundrels... But this doesn't do justice to the full story of who he was."

According to Wilson, "Americans often saw him (Barnum) as an exemplar of what it meant to be one of them, and the Europeans he encountered on his many trips abroad also saw him as a representative of the American character... Through hard work, a lot of brass, and a genius for exploiting the new technologies related to communication and transportation, he became world famous and wealthy beyond his dreams."

If you want to know more about the man that Phineas Taylor Barnum really was, -- And, if you're a public relations practitioner, I think you should. -- I urge you to read this book. It's a well-balanced biography that reveals a full-picture of the subject, his warts as well as his beaming smile and his missteps and shortcomings as well as his accomplishments. It also includes information that was only recently uncovered about Barnum's second marriage, about his political career including his defeat by a cousin (also named Barnum)in an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and his philanthropic bequests. It has clearly displaced The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P.T. Barnum by Irving Wallace which was previously my favorite biography of Barnum.

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