The Prince of Humbugs

Conventional wisdom holds that life is getting worse: values are declining, crime is up, the standard of living is down. Is this truth or myth? The only method by which we can reasonably ascertain whether or not things are indeed getting worse is to find a reference point by which to compare the present with the past. We often find in doing so that many of our perceptions about the good old days are mythic in nature.

When we employ the same method to determine if the tactics contemporary advertisers and producers of consumer goods use are indeed worse--in the sense of unscrupulous, devious or immoral-- than those used in the past, we find compelling evidence that advertisers of the 19th century employed many of the same techniques as their present day counterparts.

Arguably the most famous promoter of his century, P. T. Barnum, the great American showman, introduced America and the world to Joice Heth, General Tom Thumb, Jumbo the Elephant and the Feejee Mermaid. At the height of its popularity, his gigantic showcase, the American Museum, was tallying annual box-office receipts in excess of three hundred thousand dollars, an astonishing sum considering that the price of admission was twenty-five cents. His autobiography "The Life of P. T. Barnum" was one of the most widely read books of the 19th century.

As a pioneer in advertising, Barnum was a master at getting people to buy that which they did not need nor could not use. Like his modern day advertising counterparts he benefited from people's ignorance. While Barnum relentlessly professed the importance of leading a virtuous, Christian life, he was practiced in the art of exploiting the popular fascination with that which might be construed as a deviation from the traditional perspective of God's intentions vis a vis normalcy. As Neil Harris states:"Barnum had become the national clearing house for the bizarre and the grotesque."* He celebrated any person, animal, or object which fell outside the bounds of what was traditionally accepted as "normal." In doing so, he flirted with confronting and even contradicting Christian perspectives on race, gender, age, and sexuality. Who could look at his "Siamese Twins" and not wonder about two independent minds sharing the same genitalia? Harris explains Barnum's success at getting his audience to "buy in" to his hoaxes:

He turned the merchandiser's pursuit into an artform of its own. His objectives may have been prosaic and self-interested, but his methods, exquisitely sensitive to popular feeling, were innovative and daring. *

Through these methods, Barnum grew from obscurity to become a prominent personality in the psyche and culture of 19th century America. He and/or his exhibits are mentioned repeatedly in the literature of the time. His name was (and continues to be) invoked to represent everything from Christian beneficence to human depravity by the pundits, journalists, politicians, and religious leaders of his time. Barnum's "name became a synonym for charlatanry but [he] also won respect as an impresario of culture." * He was possibly the inspiration for Hank Morgan, the wayward time-traveler and main character in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court.

As his prominence and fame grew, so did his reputation for being a humbug. In fact Barnum referred to himself as the "Prince of Humbugs" (Was it humility that precluded him from ascribing to himself the title "King of Humbugs"?) He was so at ease with the title that he even wrote a book on history's greatest hoaxes, Humbugs of the World (1865). According to an article in the Nation, Barnum personified humbuggery, a practice:

which eats out the heart of religion and morality even more effectually than the display of great crimes or great vices, and which, if it were to spread, might easily end in presenting us with a community regular in its praying and singing, and decent in its external crust, but in which all below was rottenness and uncleanness.*

Yet, the crowds would continue to flow through his turnstiles by the millions. His wealth and affluent lifestyle made him a folk-hero of the common man and threat to the powers that be. He was constantly defending himself against charges of moral turpitude and other offenses by the press, clergy, and others, like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Yet, his popularity as a showman and public figure was rarely marred by their accusations. He became a living American treasure. On this issue Neil Harris submits:

Contemporaries sensed that he was a representative American not simply because of his enterprise and energy, but because of a special outlook on reality, a peculiar and masterly way of manipulating other people and somehow making them feel grateful for being the subjects of his manipulation. *

Yet for all the the public's adulation, there was a dark side to Barnum's methods; he made the lion's share of his money on the ignorance and gullibility of his audience. The less discriminating they were as consumers, the better it was for Barnum. Consequently he tailored his exhibits to appeal to the lowest common psychological denominator of society. In doing so, he contributed to and profited from the "dumbing" of his fellow Americans.

[The Feejee Mermaid | Joice Heth | Barnum the Promoter | The Age Factor ]

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