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Collection on P. T. Barnum

Call Number: MS002

Scope and Contents

This collection contains correspondence, manuscripts, inventories, photographs, clippings, and memorabilia documenting aspects of the career of P.T. Barnum and Barnum's relationship with Tufts University. The development and maintenance of Barnum Hall and the Barnum Museum are detailed through the correspondence of Barnum, Professor John P. Marshall, the Smithsonian Institution, and Ward's Natural Science Establishment, dating from the 1870s through the 1890s. Transcriptions of many of these letters exist. Also included are letters authored by Barnum and his contemporaries and collected by, or donated to, Tufts University. Twentieth-century correspondence is mainly authored by Russell L. Carpenter, curator of the Barnum Museum. Carpenter's drafts of manuscripts and lectures about Barnum and Jumbo are present. Inventories outlining some of the artifacts contained in the Museum date from 1856 through the 1930's. Clippings from the 19th and 20th centuries relate to Barnum's career, Jumbo the elephant's career, Jumbo's role as Tufts' mascot, the fire that destroyed Jumbo, and occasionally, circuses in general. Photographs show Barnum Hall, Barnum circus characters, and Jumbo alive, immediately following his death, and on display at Tufts. Memorabilia dates from the 19th and 20th centuries and includes Barnum's scrapbook from his 1889 London circus tour, framed drawings and clippings of Jumbo, copper plates showing an artist's representation of Jumbo's death, an elephant prod, advertising cards featuring jumbo, a "Cut-Up Jumbo" puzzle, and a segment of Jumbo's tail, removed during renovation of the stuffed elephant. Materials in the P. T. Barnum Collection were both generated and collected by Tufts University. Interfiled with Barnum's correspondence with Tufts are letters on unrelated topics, presumably purchased from dealers. Transcriptions of many of the earliest letters appear, both in separate folders and interfiled with the original correspondence. The bulk of the materials are not organized chronologically and it is not uncommon, particularly in folders of clippings and photographs, to find materials that span the 19th and 20th centuries in a single folder. In the 20th-century correspondence, there are interfiled letters in response to reference questions relating to the archival materials themselves. Memorabilia rounds out the collection. Within each material type, documents are frequently grouped by subject. Twentieth-century correspondence and materials relating to the maintenance of the museum and the archival collection appear at random intervals. An item level listing of letters authored by P.T. Barnum exists.


  • Creation: 1818 -- 2009
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1837 -- 1985



This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material in this collection may be protected by copyright and other rights. Please see “Reproduction and Use” on the Tufts Archival Research Center website for more information about reproductions and permission to publish. Any intellectual property rights that the donor possesses have not been transferred to Tufts University.

Biographical / Historical

Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810 - 1891), showman and circus entrepreneur, served on the board of Trustees of Tufts College and as a benefactor of the institution in its early years.

Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810, to Philo F. Barnum, a farmer and shopkeeper, and Irena Taylor. He held many jobs as a youth, including herding cattle, selling theater tickets, and publishing the abolitionist newspaper The Herald of Freedom (1831-1834). Barnum married seamstress Charity Hallett in 1829, and they had four daughters.

In 1835 Barnum purchased the right to exhibit the elderly enslaved woman Joice Heth, as the supposed 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, at Niblo's Gardens in New York City. He then led a small traveling circus through the South and West, and engaged in a number of unsuccessful business ventures. In 1841 Barnum bought and re-opened the American Museum in New York City. Exhibits included the Feegee [sic] mermaid, the bearded lady, and the "Egress," along with fossils and natural history specimens.

Barnum’s half-brother Philo introduced him to the dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton in 1842, and Barnum hired Stratton as an exhibit under the name General Tom Thumb. Barnum and Stratton made several tours to England and Europe (1844, 1858). Barnum modeled his Connecticut mansion Iranistan (destroyed by fire in 1857), in part, on the Brighton Pavilion. In 1850 Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America for a concert tour.

From 1851 to 1857 he was one of the founding trustees of the new Universalist institution, Tufts College (founded in 1852 and opened to students in 1854). After being elected to the Trustees in 1851, Barnum resigned in 1857, because his busy schedule of tours precluded his attendance at board meetings. In fact, the only record that exists of Barnum actually visiting the campus was in 1886 for the commencement ceremony. On the occasion of that visit the Tufts Glee Club greeted him with "The Barnum Song" composed by then-student Leo Rich Lewis, who was later to become professor of music and composer of numerous Tufts songs.

In the 1870s Barnum organized the "Greatest Show on Earth,” which traveled by train through the United States and Canada. In 1881 he joined his business rivals to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus. His correspondence of this period explains that he is too busy to attend Tufts functions, such as commencements. In 1882, Barnum bought Jumbo, then the largest known African elephant, for $10,000 from the Royal Zoological Society in London. After great protest in England, he brought the animal to America. Between 1882 and 1884, Barnum anonymously gave over $50,000 to Tufts College to build the Barnum Museum of Natural History. He also left over $30,000 in his will to build two subsequent wings. Barnum had the bodies of dead circus animals preserved and mounted by Ward's Natural Science Establishment (taxidermists) for exhibit in the museum. In 1885, Jumbo was killed by a train in Ontario, Canada. The elephant, stuffed by Carl Akeley and William Critchley, was taken on more circus tours. In 1889, Barnum donated the mounted skin to the Barnum Museum at Tufts, and Jumbo’s skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Barnum hoped that the publicity might be useful to the college, and Jumbo became the school mascot.

In 1889 Barnum made his last tour to England and compiled the scrapbook of his trip, which is now in this collection. Barnum died in Bridgeport, Connecticut on April 7, 1891. In April 1975, an electrical fire in Barnum Hall destroyed Jumbo and much other Barnumiana, including Barnum’s desk, his bust, many circus posters, and some letters.


12.55 Linear Feet

1 Artifact(s)

63 Digital Object(s)

Language of Materials



This collection contains correspondence, manuscripts, inventories, photographs, clippings, and memorabilia documenting aspects of the career of P.T. Barnum and Barnum's relationship with Tufts University. The materials date from 1818-2009.


This collection is organized into two series: Correspondence, photographs, and other material; Loose prints.

Processing Information

The collection was processed by Barbara J. Burke, ca. 1977, and it has been largely left in the order she imposed. The materials are loosely organized by type, with the earlier correspondence preceding printed matter, followed by photographs and illustrations.

Repository Details

Part of the Tufts Archival Research Center Repository

35 Professors Row
Tisch Library Building
Tufts University
Medford Massachusetts 02155 United States