P.T. Barnum and Alcohol: Opposed Drinking, Supported Temperance, & Advocated Prohibition

P.T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, wrote that he was a drinking person until about the age of 40. “Then, I saw so much intoxication among men of wealth, filling the highest positions in society, that I began to ask myself the question ‘What guarantee is there that I may not become a drunkard?”’1


From then on he abstained from spirits such as whiskey but continued to drink wine. (It was not commonly recognized then that standard servings of spirits and wine contain the same amount of alcohol.)

But he heard a temperance speaker say that moderate drinkers caused more harm by their example than drunkards. Barnum then destroyed his supply of Champagne and took the pledge of total abstinence.

P.T. Barnum

Barnum was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. He then said that the city had an obligation to “minimize the evils of the rum traffic.” Barnum was won election to the state legislature three times. He served there as chair of the Committee of Temperance.


The great showman was a deeply committed campaigner for temperance. He presented public lectures on the subject. He served only iced water at his American Museum. (Alcohol was usually expected at such venues.) And he featured the temperance play, “The Drunkard,” at the museum.

Barnum wrote that he felt more strongly about the temperance movement than any other subject. Although many friends wanted him to run for the U.S. presidency on the Prohibition Party ticket, he declined.


Among his many writings, Barnum authored The Liquor Business: Its Effects on the Minds, Morals, and Pockets of Our People.  He wrote that

“The money annually expended for intoxicating drinks, and the cost of their evil results in Bridgeport or any other American city where liquor selling is licensed, would pay the entire expense of the city (if liquors were not drunk), including the public schools, give a good suit of clothes to every poor person of both sexes, a barrel of flour to every poor family living within its municipal boundaries, and leave a handsome surplus on hand.

Our enormous expenses for the trial and punishment of criminals, as well as the support of the poor, are mainly caused by this traffic. Surely then it is our duty to do all we can, legally, to limit and mitigate its evil.”2

It was Barnum’s belief that “Alcohol is the greatest curse of the  age; and there are few of my readers who have not seen examples of the moral, mental, and physical ruin it has wrought.”3


P.T. Barnum authored dozens of books, often with slightly different titles. This was a marketing strategy to generate greater income. Here are several.

The Life of Barnum, the World-Renowned Showman: His Early Life and Struggles, Bold Adventures and Brilliant Successes. His Wonderful Career in Which He Made and Lost Fortunes, Captivated Kings, Queens, Nobility and Millions of people; His Genius, Wit, Eloquence, Public Benefactor, Life as a Citizen, Etc, Etc.  Ontario: J.S. Brown, n.d.

The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself. NY: Redfield, 1855.

The Humbugs of the World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, In All Ages. NY: Carleton, 1866.

Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967 (originally published in 1869).


Adams, B. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1997.

Cook, J. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2001.

Harding, L. Elephant Story: Jumbo and P. T. Barnum Under the Big Top. Jefferson, NC: McFarland., 2009.

Harris, N. Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1973.

Kunhardt, P., et al. P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman. NY: Knopf, 1995.

Reiss, B. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2001.

Saxon, A.  P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. NY: Columbia U Press, 1995.

Uchill, I. Howdy, Sucker! What P.T. Barnum Did in Colorado. Denver: Pioneer Peddler, 2001.

Warren, P.  P.T. Barnum. Barnum Geneology: 650 Years of Family History. Boston: Higginson, 2006.


1 Phineas T. Barnum. Life of P. T. Barnum Written by Himself including His Golden Rules for Money-Making. Brought up to 1888. Buffalo, NY: Courier, 1888, p. 260.

2 Phineas T. Barnum. Struggles and Triumphs. The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself. London: Knopf, 1927, pp. 307-308.

3 Phineus T. Barnum. The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World. The Story of Their Capture. NY, Peale, 1888, p. 4,