I was sad to hear that one of the most successful and innovative businesses to come out of the Gilded Age, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, will be closing its doors after 146 years. The Gilded Age gave birth to all new types of entertainment, especially for the working class, including circuses.
One of the most well-known raconteurs of that time was P.T. Barnum. He knew from an early age that he was born to be an entrepreneur. After several failed attempts at business, he went to New York City without a penny to his name and began his career as a showman. He quickly realized he had a knack for discovering unusual talent, and was the first person to coin the phrase “show business”.
The Gilded Age was a time of economic growth, and industrialization led to real wage growth. The working class had money in their pockets and free time to enjoy it. An inexpensive form of entertainment for the working class was the dime museum. The first one was called the “American Museum” and was founded by Barnum in New York City. It was billed as edutainment for the masses, a lowbrow combination of entertainment and moral education. It included freak shows, wax figures, films, variety acts, melodramas, and pseudo-scientific exhibits.
The museum burned to the ground three times. Each time, Barnum would pick himself up, dust himself off, and immediately start building it back again.
Barnum had loved the idea of contests since selling lottery tickets as a young man. He put on flower shows, dog shows, baby shows, and chicken shows. These were judged, and the winner was given prize money. Then he came up with the idea for a beauty contest where the visiting public would choose a winner. The first prize winner got $1000, and the top 100 got to pose for an oil painting. Out of those, the top ten were included in a French publication.
Barnum didn’t enter the circus industry until he was 60 years old. He started with the P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, which was basically a traveling museum, menagerie and freak show.
He eventually took his troupe of human oddities and created the Barnum Show, which was his grandest show ever. He later partnered with James Bailey and the show would become the “Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” which was seen by crowds all over the world. He was one of the first circus owners to take his show around the country by train. This vastly increased his geographical reach and proved to be extremely profitable.
In 1907, after his death, the circus was sold to Ringling Brothers for what would amount to over $9 million dollars in today’s currency.
Barnum had grown up in working class roots and understood the people he attracted to his shows. He always wanted to give them the most value possible, and got them in the door by using hype to get their attention. He showed them a glimpse of something they had never seen before. His goal was to bring pleasure to as many people as possible, while making money doing it. He also believed in “profitable philanthropy”, or what we would today call “social entrepreneurship”.
His goal was always to show people how to tap into their sense of childlike wonder about the world around them.
Towards the end of his life he told his partner James Bailey “always remember that the children have ever been out best patrons”. Barnum cherished his nickname “The Children’s Friend” and was prouder of that title than being called “King of the World”.
Though Barnum would be sad to know that the circus was closing, in true P.T. Barnum style, he would pick himself up, dust himself off, and start thinking of his next adventure.