As we continue to move south through New England, this week we travel to Bridgeport, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound, a little over 60 miles from New York City. As a teenager, one of my best camp friends was a Bridgeport native and I remember visiting her. While driving around the city, it seemed that every 10th word out of her mouth was Barnum, as in Phineas Taylor Barnum, probably the most famous citizen of that city. It became a joke as each new location begged the question: "So, what did Barnum do here?" Of course, being teenagers, we did not actually visit the place that would have given us the most information about the famous entertainer, The Barnum Museum at 820 Main Street. (barnum-museum.org)
The Barnum Museum, housed in a historic building, has an extensive collection related to P.T. Barnum and the City of Bridgeport. The structure was completed in 1893, paid for by money bequeathed by Barnum before his death in 1891. It opened under the name of The Barnum Institute of Science and History and was a resource library and lecture hall, where such people as the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison came to speak. In the 1930s the building became the property of the City of Bridgeport and in 1936 it reopened under the name Barnum Museum. Over the next few decades it became a city hall annex, although displays of selected collections were maintained on the premises. In the 1960s the city offices were removed and in 1968 it reopened as the P. T. Barnum Museum. Starting in 1986 a public/private group known as the Barnum Museum Foundation took over management. Over the years renovations and additions were accomplished. Right now, the historic structure (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is undergoing repair work from damage caused by a 2010 tornado and hurricanes Irene and Sandy. The museum’s offices and exhibits are currently located in the People’s United Bank Gallery, a modern wing at the rear of the building.
On her blog at the museum’s website, Executive Director Kathy Mayer writes:
"It was the ground-breaking innovations of Barnum’s American Museum that transformed public perception of entertainment, ushering in the age of family entertainment, enlightenment and instructive amusement based on his unprecedented marketing campaigns and promotional genius."
Numismatically P.T. Barnum is usually remembered as the star of the 1936 Bridgeport commemorative half dollar. However his association with coins, tokens and medals does not end there. In fact, the above mentioned Barnum’s American Museum had a large display of coins in the mid-19th century, just the time when numismatics was really starting to grow in the United States. Additionally, there are a variety of items that connect directly with P.T. Barnum, including medals ranging from the 1862 Barnum’s American Museum medal to the Bridgeport High School Barnum Medal by William Barber. Additionally there are obsolete bank notes from the Pequonnock Bank in Bridgeport, some of which feature Barnum’s portrait and an image of Iranistan his Bridgeport home, as well as with others signed by Barnum while he was the bank’s president. There are also numismatic items with looser connections to Barnum, including tokens and medals featuring Chang the Great Chinese Giant, Jenny Lind, General Tom Thumb, the Crystal Palace and more.
Additional attractions near Bridgeport
The Discovery Museum and Planetarium (discoverymuseum.org)
Beardsley Zoo (beardsleyzoo.org)
The Ballpark at Harbor Yard home of the minor-league Bridgeport Bluefish. (bridgeportbluefish.com)