Today in History

Today in History: July 5

P. T. Barnum

portrait of P. T. Barnum
P. T. Barnum,
[between 1855 and 1865].
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Along in June P T Barnum would come to Waterbury. We'd all go down on the morning train, and spend the day there. Shops was shut down tight. If they didn't nobody would have worked anyway.

Art Botsford,
Francis Donovan, interviewer,
December 6, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91) was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810. Barnum did not invent the modern three-ring circus, nor did he even apply his flair for publicity to the circus until he was more than sixty years old; but his name continues to be associated with the spectacle that he called "the greatest show on earth."

In 1835, one year after moving to New York City, having already worked as a clerk, a merchant, a lottery agent, and a journalist, Barnum joined the ranks of professional showmen by introducing to the public an elderly woman named Joice Heth as George Washington's 161-year-old nurse. Although at the time of Heth’s death in 1836, the story was exposed as a hoax, Barnum had found his calling in the world of entertainment and in the power of novelty to draw and delight a crowd.

…if the stupendous wasn't stupendous enough, the gigantic wasn't gigantic enough, the colossal wasn't colossal enough, or the "largest in captivity" wasn't large enough, the town folks felt like they had grounds for a fight.

"Circus Days and Ways,"
W. E. "Doc" Van Alstine,
Portland, Oregon,
A. C. Sherbert, interviewer,
January 13, 1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

exterior of a circus tent
Barnum's mammoth tent,
wood engraving,
Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1851.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Circus poster featuring an elephant skeleton
P. T. Barnum & Co's Greatest Show on Earth…,
Cincinnati, New York & London : Strobridge Lith. Co., [188-]
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

In 1842, Barnum took over the American Museum in New York City and augmented its more conventional exhibits of stuffed animals and waxworks with the curiosities that he had collected from around the world. He brought to the museum oddities of all sorts—genuine and fake, living and dead. Among the most famous of his attractions were the FeeJee Mermaid—a cross between a human and a fish, Chang and Eng—Siamese twins, and Charles Stratton, a twenty-five-inch-tall man whom Barnum promoted as General Tom Thumb. Barnum and Stratton toured extensively and Stratton drew nearly 20 million ticket buyers to Barnum's museum. Barnum even brought Stratton to the White House, where the two men met President Abraham Lincoln.

Tom Thumb, full-length portrait
Tom Thumb,
Standing on Table With Tablecloth,
Mathew Brady Studio,
between 1844 and 1860.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotypes Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

In 1850, in an effort to transform his image into that of a more refined patron of the arts, Barnum went to great expense to import and publicize Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." Her tour was an immense success.

Barnum expended much of his savvy for publicity on his own life and toured the country giving lectures on various topics, including "The Art of Money Getting." In 1848, he built a home for himself near Bridgeport, Connecticut, that he called "Iranistan", modeled after the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. He wrote multiple versions of his autobiography, updating and supplementing it regularly with new stories. He also served two terms in the Connecticut state legislature, after which he was elected mayor of Bridgeport. As mayor, he fought prostitution and discrimination against blacks.

In 1870-71 Barnum developed a new, traveling show, which toured the United States and Europe, combining circus and animal acts, and exhibits and novelties. In 1880, Barnum entered into a partnership with successful circus manager James Bailey, to create what ultimately became known as The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.

Barnum enjoyed the publicity that he generated. Two weeks before his death, a New York newspaper obliged Barnum by printing his obituary early enough so that he might savor it.

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs.

P. T. Barnum, The Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions,impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages.
(New York: Carleton, 1866), 16.
The Nineteenth Century in Print: Books

The Salvation Army

Remember the Poor
Remember the poor: a Salvation Army Christmas box,
New York, New York,
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On July 5, 1865, William Booth, an ordained Methodist minister and his wife Catherine, established the Christian Mission in London's poverty-stricken East End. Renamed the Salvation Army in 1878, the Booths were determined to assail the twin enemies of poverty and religious indifference with the efficiency of a military organization. Booth modeled his organization after the British army, labeling ministers "officers" and new members "recruits."

He espoused the religious doctrines subscribed to by mainstream Protestant evangelical denominations at the time. The Salvation Army was unique, however, in its commitment to establishing a presence in the most forsaken neighborhoods and in its provision for the absolute equality of women within the organization.

In 1880, the Salvation Army expanded to the United States. The movement also spread to Canada, Australia, France, Switzerland, India, South Africa, and Iceland. It now serves more than 100 countries.

As early as 1898, the Army had garnered enough attention for its unorthodox practices to become the subject of a popular satire, Captain Shout, S.A., a farcical comedy included in The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920. The play tells the story of a Mrs. Gay, a "gay widow," and her romantic conquest of a Salvation Army captain intent on converting her:

Ah--that charming Captain Shout is coming to convert me to-day. Ha, ha…I'll just let them go ahead, as long as they send the Captain to me, for I do like him so much…I must have the piano open for him, for these Salvationists do love to sing and make a noise wherever they go.

North Carolina mill worker Enoch Ball discovered his life’s work at a meeting of the Salvation Army. "When I was about 22 year [sic] old," he told writer Anne Winn Stevens in "Shave Them," an interview for the Federal Writer's Program of the Works Project Administration, "the Salvation Army came to town and started a big meeting in the old Methodist church…Me and my wife both went to the meeting. We was converted the first night."

For Ball, the Salvation Army lived up to its name:

After I was converted I stopped drinkin’. The other boys in the gang made fun of me. They persecuted me at first and prophesied it wouldn't be long before I'd be back drinkin' with 'em. But I went right on livin' right. Before long they began going to the meeting too. One by one they was converted…. Us boys that had been called the Wheathearts from the storeroom where we used to meet, was now called the Sweethearts - meaning good hearts.

Within a few decades, the Salvation Army had become a respected charitable organization in the United States. During World War I, it was one of seven groups designated to raise money for the United War Work Campaign, an effort publicized in an "Address by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.," featured in American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election. The Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for the armed forces during World War II—and was one of the six civilian agencies folded in to the United Service Organizations (USO) when it was established in 1941.

Don't forget the Salvation Army ; My doughnut girl.
"Don't forget the Salvation Army; My doughnut girl,"
words by Elmore Leffingwell and James Lucas,
music by Robert Brown and William Frisch,

Good-Bye Sally, Good Luck to You
"Good-bye Sally, good luck to you;"
Ex-service men's $20, 000 drive for the Salvation Army,
words and music by Sergeant Sam Habelow,

Historic American Sheet Music: 1850-1920

The Salvation Army was aboot the only sect I had much respect for. They used to do a lot of good, and they got dom little thanks for it. That's why they wear those droopy hats, you know. When they first come around, the people would pelt 'em with rotten eggs and vegetables and dom near anything they could lay their hands on. Durin' the war, after they helped oot the soldiers the way they did, they built up a fine reputation.

Thomaston, Connecticut,
Francis Donovan, interviewer,
February 15, 1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

During the Great Depression, the Salvation Army provided food and lodging for those in need. The storefront pictured here, identified as the Newark, Ohio, Salvation Army headquarters, advertised the provision of "Transient Social Service, Meals and Lodging."

Salvation Army headquarters, Newark, Ohio
Salvation Army headquarters,
Newark, Ohio,
Ben Shahn, photographer,
Summer 1938.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black-and-White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

A panhandler tells Depression-era stories about his colorful colleagues:

Sammy would take a job once in a while if he thought there was something extra in it, like playin' Santa Claus on the corner at Christmas. He liked to stand and figger how to get his hand in the little hole where the money goes down the chimney. I guess he never did figger that one out because the Salvation Army has been hirin' guys like Sammy for years and knows its oats.

"The Letter,"
Chicago, Illinois,
J. D. Stradling, interviewer,
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940