Books

That time P.T. Barnum wrote a personal finance book

You’ve tried everything, from the bland money-management tips of Dave Ramsey to the crazy nonsense of the Prosperity Gospel gurus, but your personal finances are still a mess. Why not turn instead to … P.T. Barnum!

Yes, P.T. Barnum, king of ballyhoo, prince of humbugs, sultan of spin … giver of financial advice? The wealth-building secrets of history’s most flagrant huckster must surely begin with the words, “Get a sturdy circus tent,” and end with the encouragement, “You can never have too many bearded ladies!”

But no! In his 1880 book, The Art of Money Getting, the splashy creator of The Greatest Show on Earth proves as sensible and level-headed about the almighty dollar as your CPA. After reading this 82-page book, one wonders if P.T. stands for “Practical Thinker.”

P.T. Barnum art of money getting

“People ought to be as sensible on the subject of money-getting as on any other subject,” he explains in the introduction. And what’s the best way to start your money-getting? It’s not “run away and join the circus.” No, Barnum eschews all whimsy in his dead-serious opus on America’s favorite pastime, the getting of money, and just trots out that sad old saw: cut back on your current expenses.

“Fewer servants, a less number of balls, parties, theater-goings, carriage-ridings, pleasure excursions, cigar-smokings, liquor-drinkings, and other extravagances,” he suggests.

All very upper-class, all very Gilded Age millionaire, this advice. My servants and I are really getting a kick out of it, as we sit smoking our Havanas in this theater-going carriage of mine.

And if your readers indeed cut back on their “pleasure excursions” and “other extravagances,” how would you fill your circus tents, P.T. Barnum? Riddle me this!

Barnum claimed to practice what he preached. For example, he used to smoke between 10 and 15 cigars per day. But as of 1880, “I have not used the weed during the last fourteen years, and never shall again.”

Not that weed, children. Although it might explain why he thought the Fiji Mermaid would fool anyone.

“Those who deal with the public must be careful that their goods are valuable; that they are genuine. … Anything spurious will not succeed permanently because the public is wiser than many imagine.”

– P.T. Barnum, The Art of Money Getting

Once your spending is in check, the next step, per Barnum, is to find a job that suits your particular skill set and temperament. But don’t set up shop just anywhere, he warns. “After securing the right vocation, you must be careful to select the proper location.”

By gum, that’s catchy! That’s the P.T. Barnum we came to see.

Vocation, location and remuneration taken care of, all you have to do is obey Barnum’s imperative chapter titles and your financial life will simply sort itself out:

“Avoid Debt”

“Persevere”

“Learn Something Useful”

“Advertise Your Business”

“Do Not Scatter Your Powers”

“Don’t Blab”

And most important of all, “Read the Newspapers,” orders former newspaper-publisher Barnum.

More like this: “That time Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a mystery novel”

It’s all so down-to-earth, so dry, so disgustingly sensible. Barnum, a forward-thinking man in many ways, a con artist extraordinaire in others, appears to be an irredeemably uptight man in this book of his, as he spends page after page pronouncing his disapproval of an odd assortment of happy-making things. He even admits to this Puritanical bent, writing, “I was born in the blue-law State of Connecticut, where the old Puritans had laws so rigid that it was said, ‘they fined a man for kissing his wife on Sunday.’”

Besides Sunday smooching, he abhors:

• Nice furniture
• Alcohol
• Lending money to loved ones
• Multitasking
• New clothes
• Irish accents
• Inheritance
• Watchmaking

Especially watchmaking. “I never had the slightest love for mechanism; on the contrary, I have a sort of abhorrence for complicated machinery,” he gripes, thanking his lucky stars that his father never forced him to go into the trade. “Watchmaking is repulsive,” he shudders.

Barnum’s conservative leanings are never lost on the reader as they wend their way through the great ringmaster’s slim volume.

“That we are born ‘free and equal’ is a glorious truth in one sense, yet we are not all born equally rich, and we never shall be,” Barnum admits, with barely a shrug of regret. “As a general thing, money-getters are the benefactors of our race.”

Barnum manages to out “Horatio Alger” the original bootstrapper himself, proclaiming that the most destitute of us can achieve not just middle-class comfort but stratospheric wealth if only we work a little harder and spend less on our horses.

“John Jacob Astor was a poor farmer boy, and died worth twenty millions,” he offers.

In the next breath he admits that the system, even in the 19th century, was rigged against the would-be money-getters in favor of the money-havers.

“Mr. Astor,” Barnum concedes, “said it was more difficult for him to accumulate his first thousand dollars, than all the succeeding millions that made up his colossal fortune.”

It also helped that Mr. John Jacob Astor, future millionaire, started life not as a “poor farmer boy” but a solidly middle-class lad with a father and older brothers well-established in their trades and willing to give him training, employment, and crucial start-up capital when he arrived in America from Germany by way of London in 1783. Some would say Astor was also lucky to be in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of the North American fur trade at the ideal historic moment.

“There is no such thing in the world as luck,” snaps P.T. Barnum in reply.

Then I guess it wasn’t bad luck that put Mr. Astor’s heir and namesake in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time on April 15, 1912. No, it was personal grit and financial fortitude that placed John Jacob Astor IV aboard the Titanic, and it was his willingness to cut back on unnecessary expenses that caused him to drown when the ship sank.

Barnum must have been a delight to work for. And he confirms this in his “Use the Best Tools” chapter, writing, “If, as he gets more valuable, [your employee] demands an exorbitant increase of salary, on the supposition that you can’t do without him, let him go. Whenever I have such an employee, I always discharge him; first, to convince him that his place may be supplied, and second, because he is good for nothing if he thinks he is invaluable and cannot be spared.”

Wow.

Still, in spite of his worst-boss-ever attitude and personal reputation for hucksterism, the advice Barnum offers in The Art of Money Getting seems well-intentioned.

“To all men and women, therefore, do I conscientiously say, make money honestly,” he urges. “Uncompromising integrity of character is invaluable. It secures to its possessor a peace and joy which cannot be attained without it — which no amount of money, or houses and lands can purchase.”

Then again … maybe the self-described “Prince of Humbugs” had the last laugh, after all. Just how much did he make from The Art of Money Getting? Was the book itself a work of art, that art being the art of money-getting?

As Barnum himself said, there’s a sucker born every minute …

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