Before P. T. Barnum founded the Barnum and Bailey circus there was Barnum’s American Museum. Barnum had been in the entertainment game for years. His variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater” was bankrupted during the Panic of 1837 and he struggled to get back on his feet afterward.
He saw an opportunity when he purchased Scudder’s Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street around the corner from Printing House Row and across from St. Paul’s Church. He then went about making changes. What emerged was like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
When it opened on December 31, 1841 the new Barnum’s American Museum had included something for everyone in New York’s diverse population. There was a scale model of Dublin for the Irish immigrants and a 3,000 seat Moral Lecture Room for the middle-class establishment. The five-storey exterior was an advertisement for the museum – murals lit with limelight.
Barnum filled the American Museum with dioramas, panoramas, scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey’s torso with a fish’s tail), midgets, Siamese twins, a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Barnum kept the museum open 365 days a year. It was open fifteen hours a day and had as many as 15,000 visitors a day. Some 42 million customers paid the 25 cents admission to attend the museum between 1841 and 1865. The total population of the United States in 1860 was under 32 million.
Barnum’s American Museum had one of the greatest runs in entertainment history, before it burned to the ground in 1865. After this, P. T. Barnum spent a short time in politics, before getting into the circus business.