Anniversary: Bicentennial of P.T. Barnum, His Hoaxes, Humbug … and Let’s Fix His Most Famous ‘Quote’?

MONDAY, JULY 5: “There’s a sucker born every minute!” As we celebrate P.T. Barnum’s bicentennial today, we recall that acid remark as Barnum’s most enduring slogan, right? Well, think again! Check out Wikipedia’s exploration of the famous Barnum quote and make your own judgment. (If you’re skeptical of Wikipedia, here’s another historical site making the same argument that PT did not utter his most famous “quote”!)

In fact, rather than remembering Barnum as the ultimate con man, we might remember him as the ultimate in social-network marketing! In the era before Google Trends and Nielsen web tracking, Barnum had his pulse on the American psyche. His shows were more than hokum—especially his triumphant tour of the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind in 1850. In an era before radio, Jenny Lind’s tour likely was the first world-class operatic voice many Americans had ever heard.

It’s not hard to connect the dots from Barnum to 20th century American religious trends is it? From tent revivals by faith healers to the zenith of the televangelists—and even into principles of megachurch marketing today—American religious entrepreneurs owe a huge debt to Barnum.

Barnum was a devoted Christian who carried the Bible with him everywhere and read it from cover to cover several times. He credited Christianity for the “most serene happiness” of his life. At the end of the 19th century, his autobiography “The Life of P.T. Barnum,” sold more copies than any other book, second only to the New Testament! His publicity skills were to thank for that, of course.

His hometown of Bethel, Conn., is throwing a 200th birthday party for him today. Check out this coverage in a local online newspaper.

The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., also is celebrating his bicentennial.

It’s true that Barnum’s promotions used some unfortunate stereotypes of ethnic diversity, including “cannibals” he exhibited, for example. But Barnum was born 200 years ago in a far different America. Email us, please, if you’ve got thoughts about the great showman’s legacy at [email protected]

If We Toss Out “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute,”
Here Are REAL Quotes from Phineas Taylor Barnum

Without promotion, something terrible happens—nothing!

The foundation of success in life is good health.

I believe this world is in great measure what we choose to make it.

Every crowd has a silver lining.

AND, FOR HIS BIRTHDAY, here’s P.T. Barnum describing his own birth 200 years ago: My first appearance upon this stage was on the 5th day of July, Anno Domini 1810. Independence Day had gone by, the cannons had ceased to thunder forth their remembrances of our National Anniversary, the smoke had all cleared away, the drums had finished their rattle, and when peace and quiet were restored, I made my debut.

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)

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