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The P.T. Barnum of the Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton

Building a City


It was now about five years since Barnum had had a settled home. The necessities of his business combined with the adversities of fortune had kept him knocking about from pillar to post. Sometimes they lived in boarding-houses, and sometimes they kept house in temporary quarters. Mr. and Mrs. Barnum were now alone, two of their daughters being married and the third being away at a boarding-school. Mrs. Barnum's health was much impaired, and it was desirable that she should have a comfortable and permanent home. Accordingly, in 1860, Barnum built a pleasant house at Bridgeport, next to that of his daughter Caroline and not far from the ruins of Iranistan.

His unfortunate enterprise in the clock business had not discouraged him from further business ventures. His pet city, East Bridgeport, was growing rapidly. An enormous sewing-machine factory had been built, employing a thousand workmen. Other large factories were springing up, many private residences were being erected, and there was a great demand for houses of all kinds, but especially for small cottages suitable for mechanics and other laboring men. The farm-land which Barnum had purchased only a few years before was rapidly becoming a city.

It was characteristic of Barnum to place himself in the forefront in this city-building movement, and in the double role of speculator and public benefactor. The enterprise which he undertook was calculated both to help those who were willing to help themselves to obtain independent homes, and at the same time to pay a handsome profit to Mr. Barnum. His scheme was described by himself as follows in the Bridgeport Standard:


"There is a demand at the present moment for two hundred more dwelling-houses in East Bridgeport. It is evident that if the money expended in rent can be paid towards the purchase of a house and lot, the person so paying will in a few years own the house he lives in, instead of always remaining a tenant. In view of this fact, I propose to loan money at six per cent. to any number, not exceeding fifty, industrious, temperate and respectable individuals, who desire to build their own houses.

"They may engage their own builders, and build according to any reasonable plan (which I may approve), or I will have it done for them at the lowest possible rate, without a farthing profit to myself or agent, I putting the lot at a fair price and advancing eighty per cent. of the entire cost; the other party to furnish twenty per cent. in labor, material, or money, and they may pay me in small sums weekly, monthly, or quarterly, any amount not less than three per cent. per quarter, all of which is to apply on the money advanced until it is paid.

"It has been ascertained that by purchasing building materials for cash, and in large quantities, nice dwellings, painted, and furnished with green blinds, can be erected at a cost of $1,500 or $1,800, for house, lot, fences, etc., all complete, and if six or eight friends prefer to join in erecting a neat block of houses with verandas in front, the average cost need not exceed about $1,300 per house and lot. If, however, some parties would prefer a single or double house that would cost $2,500 to $3,000, I shall be glad to meet their views.
"February 16, 1864."

On this the editor of the paper commented as follows:

"AN ADVANTAGEOUS OFFER.--We have read with great pleasure Mr. Barnum's advertisement, offering assistance to any number of persons, not exceeding fifty, in the erection of dwelling-houses. This plan combines all the advantages and none of the objections of building associations. Any individual who can furnish in cash, labor, or material, one-fifth only of the amount requisite for the erection of a dwelling-house, can receive the other four-fifths from Mr. Barnum, rent his house, and by merely paying what may be considered as only a fair rent, for a few years, find himself at last the owner, and all further payments cease. In the meantime, he can be making such inexpensive improvements in his property as would greatly increase its market value, and besides have the advantage of any rise in the value of real estate. It is not often that such a generous offer is made to working men. It is a loan on what would be generally considered inadequate security, at six per cent., at a time when a much better use of money can be made by any capitalist. It is therefore generous. Mr. Barnum may make money by the operation. Very well, perhaps he will, but if he does, it will be by making others richer, not poorer; by helping those who need assistance, not by hindering them, and we can only wish that every rich man would follow such a noble example, and thus, without injury to themselves, give a helping hand to those who need it. Success to the enterprise. We hope that fifty men will be found before the week ends, each of whom desires in such a manner to obtain a roof which he can call his own."

A considerable number of men immediately availed themselves of Barnum's offer, and succeeded after a time in paying for their homes without much effort. There were many others, however, who did not fully accept his proposals. They would not sign the temperance pledge, and they would not give up the use of tobacco. The result was, that they continued month after month and year after year to pay rent on hired tenements. "The money they have expended for whiskey and tobacco," remarked Mr. Barnum, moralizing upon this topic, "would have given them homes of their own if it had been devoted to that object, and their positions, socially and morally, would have been far better. How many infatuated men there are in all parts of the country who could now be independent, and even owners of their own carriages, but for their slavery to these miserable habits!"

This East Bridgeport land was originally purchased by Barnum at an average cost of about $200 per acre. A few years after the above-described enterprise, a considerable part of it was assessed in the tax list at from $3,000 to $4,000 per acre. It was presently annexed to the city, and connected with it by three bridges across the river. A horse-railroad was also built, of which Mr. Barnum was one of the original stockholders.

This part of the city was laid out by General Noble and Mr. Barnum, and various streets were named after members of the two families. Hence there are Noble street, Barnum street, William street (General Noble's first name), Harriet street (Mrs. Noble's name), Hallett street (Mrs. Barnum's maiden name), and Caroline street, Helen street, and Pauline street, the names of Barnum's three daughters. A public school was also named for Mr. Barnum. The streets were lined with beautiful shade trees, set out by thousands by Barnum; and Noble, and the same gentlemen gave to the city its beautiful Washington Park of seven acres.

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