How much was Phineas T. Barnum worth?
|Date of Birth:
|July 5, 1810 (aged 80)
|United States of America
|6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)
About Phineas T. Barnum
P.T. Barnum was known around the world for being a great showman and businessman. He was so famous that he is considered today as one of the most famous people of the 19th century. At the beginning of his career he caught attention when exhibited humbugs (hoaxes) and by the mid-1800s, in New York City, his museum of curiosities was one of the major attractions.
Barnum’s fortune has never been fully appraised. However it included his many mansions, investment portfolio and various businesses. Including his circus that eventually was sold to Ringling Bros. in 1907 for an estimated $400,000. About $12 million dollars today but was worth many multiples more when Barnum was alive.
One must remember that $4 million was a tremendous amount in 1891. A single $1 in 1891 is the same as $31.18 as of 2023. What’s more spending an equivalent of $31.18 in 1891 would buy you more products and services than it would today I believe I am right in saying.
P.T. Barnum became well known after the end of the Civil War because he was operated a traveling circus which held shows across America. Not only did he manage the circus and was pivotal in its planning and performances, he also was a part of the shows.
His acts included one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century, the Cardiff Giant, as well as General Tom Thumb and the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.
Not only did P.T. Barnum become famous for his entertainment and savvy business skills. He also became known as a politician when he served as the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He stood against alcohol and as a teetotaler spoke out against drinking even in moderation advocating that alcohol should be illegal to drink at all.
Over the years Barnum became loved by the American people. Despite some ridicule on occassion from the various newspapers of the time. When P.T. Barnum died at aged 80 in 1891, the news was published solemnly and carried on the front pages of newspapers across the nation.
Early Life of Phineas T. Barnum
On July 5, 1810 Phineas T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. At age 15 his father died and Barnum took over more roles in the family including working in a store to help support his mother and his five siblings.
Over the next ten years Barnum honed his natural aptitudes for business and marketing. He was industrious and learned how to successfully run small businesses including shops and even a newspaper. He was young, just 19, when he married and pledged to himself to be prosperous.
By the age of 25 Barnum had moved from Connecticut to New York and was operating a small boarding house in lower Manhattan. Barnum loved entertainment, great spectacles and feats by humankind. He also enjoyed humor and with his skills in business began to combine what he enjoyed and what he was naturally good at. It was at this time that Barnum began getting into the business of promoting circus acts and entertainment events.
In that year of 1835, Barnum got word of a woman called Joice Heth. Joice Heth had supposedly been a slave to the family of George Washington and documents allegedly established her age to be 161 years old. (One of Barnum’s many “humbugs” as he liked to call his hoaxes). Seeing an opportunity to present the woman as a feat of humankind and a must see attraction. Barnum began promoting Joice Heth in New York City and news of this age defying woman even spread to England through his promotional efforts.
Through his work in marketing and promotion, coupled with turning something interesting into something that was profitable. P.T. Barnum learned skills and got experience that would serve him well for the rest of his career.
Barnum’s American Museum
Of course, Barnum was not always successful at the things that he was doing. In fact in the 1830s Barnum toured across the nation promoting his collection of acts. These were hard times and he did not turn a profit instead only earning enough to take care of himself and his family. His net worth was no more than $2 thousand dollars at the time. Or about $61,000 in 2022 dollars today.
Upon returning home to New York City always the eager optimist he learned that Scudder’s American Museum was for sale.
The Scudder’s American Museum was in an ideal location in Broadway and Barnum immediately smelled opportunity. He already had experience with promoting and on occasion, successfully, different curiosities and staged events. It was a phenomenal risk however to go after the Scudder’s but Barnum had his mind set on trying to acquire and turn around the American Museum. And that is exactly what he did.
Many people when seeing an opportunity like this dilly-dally and decide to go ‘the slow and consistent route’. However that seldom is what is required for a man on the rise. It is more common based on what I have read and experienced in my life, that, at a certain point, a big opportunity arises in your life and you have to choose whether to go left or right.
Those who have invested their efforts in honing their skills beforehand. When the opportunity arises are ready to take advantage of it.
Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Nothing more.
If there is luck it’s Richard Branson’s luck. The harder you work the luckier you get.
For Barnum the acquisition of the museum was a tremendous risk but he saw that the opportunity was incredibly rare and the likelihood of it happening again in the next decade even rarer. Even with every penny he had invested in the deal, he still could not afford to buy even near to an ownership stake all at once. Fortunately Barnum had already developed skills in negotiation through his work in marketing, dealing with venues and his promoting of events that turned out to be profitable.
He put everything he had into his negotiations on the Scudder’s American Museum and eventually managed to swing a deal with the owner where he could begin work immediately and acquire it gradually overtime as he met with his promises.
With his all-in attitude he knew that he could not afford to fail. He was up early and when it called for it he worked late. He loved his work though and every minute he knew he was doing it for his eventual success and so that he could take care of his family in the way that he felt that they deserved.
He was so successful in this period of his life that, at 32 years old, in 1842. Barnum had earned so much money from his management of the circus that he attained full ownership and control of the museum. Over the next twenty years his American Museum had become one of the must visit places in New York City and was making money hand over fist.
There were jugglers, stage acts and even exotic animals being displayed to blow his audiences’ minds. One of his biggest attractions was General Tom Thumb, a dwarf who achieved great fame and attracted crowds of paying customers for Barnum’s museum. It was so popular in fact that at its peak there were several performances per day of this one act alone.
Later as you will learn he put it all together and into The Greatest Show on Earth including hundreds of animals, acrobats and rail road carts of tents and equipment. While I am not promoting the animal circus business I do respect P.T. Barnum’s running of it. An incredibly difficult mess to organize, display, pack up and move. But Barnum did it well.
While it was noted that some of the acts were over hyped and did not live up to what was being promoted on streets across New York. There was a charm in the experience that Barnum was creating. His intention was to provide entertainment for his audiences first and foremost. The money was always secondary to that which is why it was so constant. For to earn a profit sustainably overtime one must focus on the paying customers and delivering an experience that they enjoy and will share with others.
Barnun’s promotions were at times seen as over the top and filled with mystery for what the final act would be. But word of mouth may have been even more valuable to his marketing efforts and this was coming directly from his customers who couldn’t wait to share some of what they had experienced at the museum.
With a packed schedule of acts and curiosities and different stage events happening on different days. Customers to the museum could not take in all of the acts on a single visit and often came back multiple times per year. Considering the 25 cent admission fee, or $9.33 adjusted for inflation, a bargain.
In the years before the Civil War which officially began in 1861 Barnum had been very successful at promoting his acts. Especially his promotion of Jenny Lind. Lind was an opera singer that, likely very over hyped, was promoted as the “Swedish Nightingale.” It was all very profitable and with like many things at the museum once the customer got over being slightly duped they enjoyed the overall experience and were considered overall happy with the performances that Barnum was providing.
In any case, the gossiping about what wasn’t good only led to the telling about what was. Barnum at the time by many accounts had a name of a bit of charlatan but to him he considered that all part of the act.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865 when Barnum thought things were just returning to normal. In July that year the original American Museum burned down in a fire. He rebuilt and tried again but these later renditions turned out to be unsuccessful for him. Then in 1868 his museum burned down again.
Then once things were back up and running after the 1868 fire. Barnum decided that he wanted to give his audiences something that had already proved successful, and showcase it himself to his own audiences. He exhibited his own version of the Cardiff Giant, a “petrified man” purported to have been uncovered in a dig on October 16, 1869 in Cardiff, New York. It of course turned out that the ten-foot tall 3,000 pound “man” was a fraud but even before that Barnum was sued by the original creator. Fortunately, the judge ruled in Barnum’s favor when the exhibit was outed as a hoax. Those being the circumstances, Barnum was considered to have every right to exhibit a copy of his own.
The Circus Years
The Great Hippodrome circus in New York came under Barnum’s control in 1874 at the same time that he began running for office. With an eye on current affairs and a personality and charisma that the people of Bridgeport, Connecticut could get behind. In 1875 he was elected mayor.
By the end of the 1870s, Barnum had made plans and tested operations so precisely that he managed to pull off an incredible feat himself. He managed the operations of a large traveling circus which visited American towns across the nation arriving by train. As you can imagine the setup of the various tents and working with the local people at every new location is mind boggling but Barnum pulled it off. He had exotic animals, a battalion of performers, and even a hippodrome that needed to be erected featuring incredible and brave acts from his riders.
Starting in the early 1870s but really hitting its note in the 1880s Barnum and James Bailey who had perviously been competitors, became firm friends. They merged their operations into a traveling show initially called The Barnum and Bailey circus. But later redubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
In 1952 a movie was released about this called The Greatest Show on Earth and set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There were of course film actors but also the real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe appear in the film. At that time it consisted of 1,400 people, hundreds of animals, and 60 railroad cars of equipment and tents.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was so successful that it only eventually became defunct in 2017. That same year The Greatest Showman was released. A biographical musical drama film directed by Michael Gracey and with Hugh Jackman playing the role of P.T. Barnum. The film is based on the story of his life and work. Included in the cast are Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, and Keala Settle.
Barnum was addicted to his work. He never drank alcohol and was known for his immersive experience between what he did to earn his fortune and taking care of his family at home. He often traveled with the moving circus and even when he did not, he was actively involved with telegrams being sent on an almost daily basis.
Not only was he involved in the planning and managing of the events. He was far more of an eye in the sky who setup protocols and operating procedures that could then be carried out without his physical presence. But also knew that a lot of the time his physical presence was required to get the job done right. Especially when it came to introducing new acts.
One of the keys to success with a circus after making sure things run as advertised. Is the finding and exploiting of new acts that would wow his audiences and have them spreading the news themselves. One of those acts was Jumbo the Elephant, a ten-foot plus Elephant measured to shoulder height. It would be the biggest animal his audience would ever see.
Barnum not only considered the future, and especially acts that he planned for the years to come. He was known to keep a close eye on daily financial reports as well as the number of tickets sold. He knew that what could cripple a business like his was cash flow problems and by looking too far ahead and investing large amounts of capital in research and the acquisition of new acts, including animals. It could actually cause problems that could cause a company to go under long before any of these new acts could even be tested, let alone marketed and made profitable.
All of these things fortunately for Barnum were things that he enjoyed doing in his daily life. And the joy of the crowd made it all the more worthwhile. Especially as a sustainable financially lucrative business and content customers are one and the same.
Barnum as a Public Figure
Barnum was not just a businessman and showman. As mentioned he was also a politician who became the Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875. He was also a great writer who had already been contributing articles to popular newspapers as far back as the 1840s. He also wrote and published several versions of his autobiography in his lifetime.
Despite his stunts and what some consider marketing ploys in his business life. There was no such thing when it came to politics. Barnum was known for taking his political work seriously, diligently creating advantageous relationships with political figures even early in his career. While he had his own views on how things should be done, he supported progressive causes. At that time the Republican Party was considered the progressive party as they sought to inhibit and restrict the spread of slavery.
When it came to the press things were cordial and although some disparaged some of his business and promotion methods. He was generally looked upon well. He even had a good friend in the press, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. However he also had an enemy at New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett.
At that time, The Herald was the most popular newspaper in the world and Barnum was mocked by them on several occasions. However he always held his head up high because he knew what he stood for and what he did not, how he marketed and what he delivered and the inner workings of his business and why he did what he did. This made him clear with himself and overtime others also became clear about what Barnum was really about.
As he aged and became more refined as a marketer and a showman, much of his somewhat outrageous deceptions of his early years were fazed out. He became far more of a fatherly figure, known for sharing his business knowledge and helping young Americans who were now also seeking their fortune as he once did.
People knew by this time that Barnum didn’t have it easy starting his many businesses and hit hard times on a number of occasions. Always showing resilience in these times and bouncing back far better than before, long term. For example, in the 1850s bad investments landed Barnum in debt but he simply developed his speaking skills and through them bounced back. While it may sound ironic while deeply in debt he spoke on the subject of how to prosper in business. However he knew that it was just an ebb in the flow of his business life and that by teaching these very seminars that he would earn enough to invest back into his core businesses that had already been so profitable.
His overall message can be summed up as staying focused, energetic and frugal with your approach to business. You never know exactly when you are going to hit on a goldmine but you must keep focused on that result, energetically searching and careful with your resources as you do.
After losing so much money with his investments in the 1850s Barnum earned far more afterwards. Not only did he earn back all of his losses, but stacked up inflated adjusted tens of millions more as businesses began to flourish in developing America. It is often the case that even the best investors lose their shirt in the market only to stage a comeback later on in life that makes their early losses laughable. I’m pretty sure I read that Ray Dalio found himself living back with his parents with a young child after losing almost everything. Today he is worth an estimated $22 billion.
Barnum like so many other young successful people risked it all and put everything that he had into what he wanted to do. He hit hard times more than once but always recovered attaining an equanimous approach to his life and business.
At the time of his death, P.T. Barnum’s net worth is estimated to be $4 million. Or about $124.7 million in 2022 dollars after adjusting for inflation. Barnum died at his home in Connecticut at the age of 80, on April 7, 1891.
After entertaining millions and providing spectacles that couldn’t be found anywhere else. The news of his death was met with sadness across the nation. It had been 50 years since Barnum had first heard tell of the Scudder’s American Museum possibly being available for acquisition. And although Barnum did not have the money to acquire it he had the mindset to control it and finally through his keenness of imagination came to own it.
It is decision’s like Barnum’s that maketh the man.