In 1841 Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum located across from St. Paul’s on the southeast corner of Broadway and Ann Street. He transformed the five-story exterior into a giant, gaudy advertisement for itself, with painted animals, illuminated panels, banners and flags, then lit it all up with limelight, a recent invention. He hired the worst musicians he could find to play on a balcony above the entrance, on the theory that their terrible noise would drive customers inside.
Barnum opened his museum on January 1, 1842 to create a place where families could go for wholesome, affordable entertainment, but his success drew from the fact that he knew how to entice an audience. Its attractions made it a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show, that was, at the same time, a central site in the development of American popular culture. Barnum filled the American Museum with dioramas, panoramas, “cosmoramas,” scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant, an oyster bar, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey’s torso with a fish’s tail), midgets, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
At its peak, the museum was open fifteen hours a day and had as many as 15,000 visitors a day. Some 38 million customers paid the 25 cents admission to attend the museum between 1841 and 1865. The total population of the United States in 1860 was under 32 million.
On July 13, 1865, the American Museum burned to the ground in one of the most spectacular fires New York has ever seen. Animals at the museum were seen jumping from the burning building, only to be shot by police officers. Barnum tried to open another museum soon after that, but that also burned down in a mysterious fire in 1868. It was after this time that Barnum moved on to politics and the circus industry. Barnum's American Museum was one of the most popular attractions of its time.