Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2008 Issue

Barnum Museum Finds Key to Its Origins on eBay

Fred Fleischer and Kathleen Maher with the Barnum ledger.


By Carl Burnham

No man of his time was better at promotion and entertaining crowds than P.T. Barnum. Barnum is attributed with the saying "Without promotion something terrible happens... Nothing!" An interesting leather bound ledger discovered on eBay is now in the hands of a museum that bears the promoter's name and contains handwritten documentation detailing artifacts donated from 1892 to 1915. The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has been amazed at the items identified in the ledger that document the earliest artifacts given to the museum when founded. Several artifacts were donated by Mrs. Barnum and other family members, including a coat originally owned by Charles Dickens, among an assortment of other Barnum family items.

According to Kathleen Maher, Executive Director/Curator for the Barnum Museum, "We were not, in fact, aware of the existence of the ledger." Credit for finding the online listing and notifying Ms. Maher goes to Frederick Fleischer, Guest Service Manager at the Barnum Museum. The winning bid was $300, purchased from the seller, Nest Egg Auctions of Meriden, Connecticut. Added Ms. Maher, "We really don't have any idea how it made its way up to Meriden...we're just happy it's home!" Given that the museum closed in the 1930s, it was likely sold then.

Besides being a testament to the great showman, the Barnum Museum contains numerous exhibits that detail the early history of Bridgeport, of which Barnum was mayor at one time. Barnum also went on to serve four terms as member of the Connecticut General Assembly. Although his more dubious pursuits were in promoting fake acts that gained him the title of "Prince of Humbugs," he was also a master entrepreneur and promoter of his time, whether it be his circus, museums, theatres, or aquarium (the first one in America). Barnum was also an author of several books, philanthropist, and real estate developer during his life.

His first museum was located in New York back in 1841. After an arsonist burned it in 1865, another was built across town. It too burned in 1868. Following this, he decided, at 61, to pursue his traveling circus to entertain the masses, which would become billed as the "Greatest Show on Earth."

The Barnum Museum opened in February of 1893 under the name the Barnum Institute for the Fairfield County Historical Society, less than two years after P. T. Barnum's death. When Barnum died, his will provided $150,000 for the construction of the museum building, which originally also housed the Bridgeport Scientific Society and the Fairfield County Historical Society. The Barnum Museum exhibits now cover three floors that detail the life of the man and his contribution to the town of Bridgeport, in which he built many of the buildings.

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