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P. T. Barnum, or Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), was an entrepreneur and showman from Connecticut, known for mastering the art of self-presentation. He helped to bring about a new era in American culture at mid-century, as the bustling masculine landscape of the theater gave way to more "respectable" middle-class forms of entertainment, in line with emerging ideals of sobriety, respectability, and domesticity. With a keen eye for star creation and promotion, Barnum orchestrated the much-anticipated arrival of soprano singer Jenny Lind in 1850. Unlike most of Barnum's other gimmicks, Lind was real; she became the first modern music superstar.

In 1835, Barnum exhibited a slave named Joice Heth, a woman supposedly 161 years old, whom he claimed had been the nurse of George Washington. His "Feejee Mermaid" of 1842 was a monkey skull attached to a fish, measuring about three feet long. All such attractions came to be stored at the American Museum, which charged a quarter for admission. Barnum's was not the first museum of its kind, but he became well known because he adeptly utilized the press to gain a national and even international reputation. By 1860, the museum had been expanded several times, and contained tanks of fish, pigeons painted every color of the rainbow, cases of shark teeth and butterflies, and Rembrandt Peale paintings that hung along the hallways. Barnum also displayed Charles Sherwood Stratton, the midget known as "General Tom Thumb," and Chang and Eng, the original "Siamese Twins." He founded the gigantic traveling circuses of the 1880s that still tour today under Barnum's name (along with those of fellow showmen J.A. Bailey and the Ringling Brothers).

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