P.T. Barnum's American Museum, located from 1841 to 1865 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, has been long recognized by historians as a pivotal institution in the development of nineteenth-century urban culture. For a twenty-five cent admission, visitors viewed an ever-revolving series of "attractions," from the patchwork Fejee Mermaid to the diminutive and articulate Tom Thumb. But the Museum also promoted educational ends, including natural history in its menageries, aquaria, and taxidermy exhibits; history in its paintings, wax figures, and memorabilia; and temperance reform and Shakespearean dramas in its "Lecture Room" or theater. Foreshadowing trends in American commercial amusement, the Museum was the first institution to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift. In one site, the Museum gathered exhibitions and amusements that previously had been offered in separate milieus; equally important, it also drew a new audience that reflected the increasingly heterogeneous population of the antebellum American city. (Although until the Civil War African Americans were barred from the Museum, as they were from most antebellum New York commercial amusements.) In an urban culture characterized by increasing difference--in taste, in subject, and in audience--Barnum's American Museum was a singular institution where, in one place, immigrants and native-born, working-class and middle-class, men and women, city residents and rural visitors could gather.

When a spectacular fire destroyed the American Museum on July 13, 1865, some commentators lamented its passing while others cheered. Barnum quickly re-opened the American Museum at a different location, but it too burned to the ground in 1868. After the second fire, Barnum turned to the circus, for which he remains well known to this day. Barnum was a larger-than-life figure whose name became synonymous with showmanship and "humbug" in his own era and ever since, and his earliest endeavors at the American Museum foreshadow much of American popular culture in the twentieth century.

Illustrations, Guide Book and an announcement from contemporary publications about "Barnum's American Museum."

Photograph of Barnum's Museum, ca. 1853
Wood engraving of "The Second Saloon"
"Sleighing in New York"
Painting of the burning of Barnum's Museum
New York Tribune Announcement with "Notice to Persons of Color"
The 1850 American Museum Illustrated Guide Book

Press coverage, letters and excerpts from Barnum's autobiography Struggles and Triumphs."

"Barnum's Museum" New York Tribune, June 19, 1850
"A Word About Museums," The Nation, July 27, 1865
"Mr. Barnum on Museums," The Nation, August 10, 1865.
Barnum on the American Museum.
Barnum on promotion.
Barnum on showmanship.
Doesticks Visits the Museum.
NYC guide: "Sights and Wonders In New York," by Timothy Findout, ca. 1850.
"Barnum's Museum." Announcement in Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, April 14, 1860.

Fire-related articles and letters.

"Disastrous Fire," The New YorkTimes, July 14, 1865.
"Burning of the Museum," Letter from Mr. Barnum, Harper's Weekly, July 14, 1865.
Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments, A.E. Costello, author and publisher, 1887.

Scholarly views about the significance of "Barnum's American Museum."

Bluford Adams, "'All Things to All People': P. T. Barnum in American Culture," in E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

William T. Alderson, ed., Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Emergence of the American Museum (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1992).

Phineas Taylor Barnum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (New York: Redfield, 1855).

Phineas Taylor Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs or, Forty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum Written by Himself (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981; abridgement of 1869 edition: NY: American News Company, 1871).

Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, P. T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

A. H. Saxon, ed., Selected Letters of P. T. Barnum (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Lost Museum Home   |   Archives Home