Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

EconKids Home Book of the Month February 2012. The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum / by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Ray Fenwick

February 2012. The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum / by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Ray Fenwick

Title: The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum
Author: Candace Fleming
Ray Fenwick
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
ISBN: 978-0-375-84197-2
Year: 2009

Concepts: child schooling and work, entrepreneur, goods/services, innovation, markets, scarcity

Review: Before he was the great circus showman P.T. Barnum, he was Phineas Taylor Barnum (known to friends and family as Taylor or even just Tale) – a simple country boy from a small village in Connecticut. In this book, Candace Fleming chronicles how Tale grew from helping out in the family’s farm and grocery to becoming the ultimate showman and a driving force behind the world-famous Barnum & Bailey circus.

Throughout this biography, there are numerous examples of economic concepts at work. Notably, the reader learns about Barnum’s upbringing and how he began manual labor at a young age. His parents enforced in him the notions of earning and saving money, with Barnum recalling “my father did not miss an opportunity for a financial lesson.” With these lessons at hand, Tale began saving pennies by age 5 and paying for his own clothing by age 7. By age 15, the elder Barnum had passed away and Tale was responsible for earning money to support the whole household.

But Barnum was never a fan of working with his hands, preferring instead to work with his head and come up with unique ways to make money. One of his schemes revolved around making candy to sell to weary and hungry volunteer soldiers after a day’s training. Another involved buying a large quantity of cheap green bottles and then offering them as prizes in a lottery at his uncle’s grocery shop. These examples, along with others, show Barnum’s almost innate understanding of human reasoning (he later wrote of the lottery incident, “People like to win, no matter how small the prize.”) and his ability to capitalize on that knowledge for his monetary gain.

In his later teen years, Barnum moved to New York City, continuing to work as a grocer’s clerk, but also learning about business with the hopes of one day running his own. Fleming writes, “He wanted one [job] where he could use his imagination and energy. He wanted to be is own boss. And he wanted to make lots of money.” Barnum engaged in various odd jobs over the years, including working in small circuses. Eventually, Barnum fell into buying and exhibiting natural curiosities – often the cringe-worthy practice of displaying people deemed as “other” enough to be astonishing – and he used all the lessons about human nature he gleaned up until this point to sell his show. For instance, his first exhibit was of Joice Heth, a slave who was reputed to be more than 160 years old and to have been originally owned by George Washington’s father. When visiting crowds started to die down, Barnum planted a false rumor that Heth was really a mechanical robot voice by Barnum himself in order to drive up ticket sales once again. Barnum concluded, “Controversy is good for business.” This early exhibit raked in money for Barnum – reportedly earning each week the equivalent of $35,000 today. He later acquired oddities and rarities to make up the exhibits in his Barnum’s American Museum, using all his past job experiences and business savvy to create an experience that astounded his museum-goers and made hundreds of thousands of dollars (the equivalent of millions today) in profits for Barnum.

After decades of running his museum, Barnum finally retired only to find himself in need of a new project to combat boredom. When he received a letter asking to become a partner in a small traveling circus, he jumped at the chance and launched a new career in the circus. He went through several partners before teaming up with James Bailey and at last the famous Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus was born.

Fleming has clearly done her research with this biography of P.T. Barnum, using various (and sometimes humorous) anecdotes to move the story along and provide fascinating tidbits about Barnum’s life, his family, and the stars of his museum and circus. She intersperses her writing with quotes from primary source materials including Barnum’s autobiography, personal letters, and relevant newspaper articles. The book also includes reproductions of archival materials such as photographs, engravings, advertisements, ticket stubs, and so forth. The final product is a biography so riveting that children and teens (and possibly even adults) will not want to put it down.

Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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