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Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) and Ernestine de Faiber

The greatest impresario of the nineteenth century, P. T. Barnum was both an extremely shrewd judge of popular taste and an intuitive master of the art and science of publicity. As skilled in promoting legitimate entertainment as he was in marketing outlandish frauds, Barnum tickled the public’s imagination and gleefully exploited its credulity for more than half a century. Though chiefly remembered as the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Barnum first gained national attention with the opening in 1842 of his American Museum on lower Broadway in New York City. Offering the public a veritable smorgasbord of entertainments, from natural history exhibits and exotic animals to sideshow curiosities and popular melodramas—all for a single low admission fee—Barnum’s museum rapidly became one of New York’s most celebrated showplaces; a distinction it maintained until its destruction by fire in 1868. By the time he created “the greatest show on earth” in 1872, Barnum enjoyed an international reputation as a showman who could be counted on to amaze and delight audiences with performers and attractions of every description—all served up with a generous dose of the “humbug” that was Barnum’s specialty.

Mathew Brady Studio (active 18441883)
Albumen silver print
Frederick Hill Meserve Collection
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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