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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 30, 2014: American Collectors: P.T. Barnum

[There are few practices more AmericanStudies, but also more complex, than that of collecting historical, cultural, and artistic treasures and memorabilia. This week I’ll highlight and analyze five such collections and the collectors who assembled them. Please share collections and museums of interest to you for a collected weekend post!]
On the two sides to an American legend, and how we might reconcile them.
P.T. Barnum apparently didn’t actually say “There’s a sucker born every minute” (ah, the perils of quote attribution, especially in this internet age as Abraham Lincoln famously noted), but I think it’s fair to say that much of his showmanship proceeded according to that principle nonetheless. This is the man who exhibited (and exploited) “the Feejee mermaid” and “Tom Thumb,” whose traveling “freak show” included (and exploited) such figures as “the man-monkey” and “Commodore Nutt,” and who, perhaps most saliently, liked to feature a sign in his tests that beckoned customers “This way to the egress.” Even when he wasn’t activitely trying to fool and cheat his customers, Barnum famously admitted that his principal ambition was “to put money in my own coffers” by whatever means proved effective.
That’s the side of Barnum that we collectively remember today (well, that and the three-ring circus that partly bears his name), and again it’s certainly not inaccurate. But on the other hand, Barnum was a lifelong reformer, on multiple levels: working to discredit false spiritualists and other frauds, such as through his book The Humbugs of the World (1865); serving his native Connecticut politically in many capactities, including as a four-term state legislator and subsequently as a reformist mayor of Bridgeport; helping to found Bridgeport Hospital and serving as its first president; and, most impressively and significantly, leaving the Democratic Party in 1854 to join the newly formed Republican Party, whose anti-slavery and reform efforts he would champion in one form or another for the remainder of his life (including an impassioned 1865 speech in the legislature in support of ratifying the 13th Amendment).
Those last efforts are not just the most impressive, however, but also the most complex and even contradictory. Again, Barnum made much of his fortune through exploiting his performers, many of whom (like the “man-monkey”) were ethnic minorities; he also produced and promoted multiple minstrel shows, including multiple ones featuring Joice Heth, a elderly female slave Barnum probably owned (and definitely exploited). Since the Heth shows were in the 1830s and most of the other minstrel shows in the 1840s and early 1850s, it would be possible to argue that Barnum evolved throughout his life and career, and I’m sure to a degree he (like everyone) did.  But to my mind such contradictions not only likely persisted in Barnum, but represent the most telling and American element to his identity and work. A reformer and a con artist, working both to improve and to exploit the lives of his fellow citizens, even coining a philosophy known as “profitable philanthropy”—sounds pretty American to me.
Next collector tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Collections you'd highlight?

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