P.T. Barnum and the 1936 Bridgeport Commemorative Half Dollar

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
 

There are few figures as famous and enduring in American pop culture as Phineas Taylor Barnum, an American showman and politician better known as P.T. Barnum. Born in 1810, he became a man unlike any that American history has brought us before or since.

Yet Barnum was more than a circus legend, acclaim he saw only later in his life after founding the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1870 with circus magnate James A. Bailey. In 1919, many years after the deaths of both Barnum and Bailey, the Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth and merged that production with their own in 1919 to form the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brand more familiar with audiences of late.

Barnum also popularized the sideshow, with long-running appearances by figures such as General Tom Thumb and Joice, the latter an enslaved African American whom Barnum billed as the 161-year-old nurse to President George Washington. Some might say that Barnum’s involvement in sideshows, where he profited mightily from exploiting people’s unusual genetic conditions or spinning hoaxes to lure crowds, is a regrettable stain on Barnum’s legacy. But the sideshow was simply one of many popular curiosities Barnum brought to the public. He also founded Barnum’s American Museum, a New York City natural history museum where Barnum eventually introduced live entertainment.

One of Barnum’s most successful ventures was his touring production featuring Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. The famous soprano was known as the “Swedish Nightingale” and performed 93 sellout concerts in the United States under Barnum’s tutelage in 1850, netting the promoter more than a half-million dollars and earning her some $350,000–extraordinary sums in the early 1850s that now amount to many millions of dollars. The sensation that surrounded Lind during her American tour helped popularize opera for the masses in a way that has endured to this day.

Barnum merged his entertainment ventures with politics, serving two terms in the Connecticut State Legislature. He was also elected the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1875 and brought many upgrades to local utilities while helping improve the general quality of life in the city. Barnum died in 1891 at the age of 80 and is buried at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport.

He may have never uttered the phrase “a sucker is born every minute,” which urban legend has commonly attributed to Barnum, but he was the self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbugs,” a term he connected to entertaining the public through hoaxes and practical jokes. Interestingly, while he was never shy in using hyperbole to drum up business, he was very much against out-and-out fraud and was especially critical of “spiritual mediums” who cheated mourners out of their money through purported communications with departed loved ones.

Barnum lives on today not only through his larger-than-life legacy but also on celluloid. Various parts of his colorful life story have been brought to the modern-day masses in films such as Barnum in 1986 with actor Burt Lancaster portraying the circus showman and Hugh Jackman taking a turn at the role in the 2017 musical drama The Greatest Showman. The 19th-century entertainment impresario was also perfectly suited for life on the Great White Way as depicted in the Broadway musical Barnum, which ran from 1980 through 1982 and remains famous for its catchy tune “Join the Circus”.

Numismatists can enshrine Barnum in their collections by way of the 1936 Bridgeport Commemorative Half Dollar, which honors the 100th anniversary of the namesake Connecticut city’s incorporation. Barnum was a natural choice for such a coin, not only because he was a longtime resident of Bridgeport but also as many believe his mayoral leadership and close association with the city helped make the shoreside town a booming seaport during the latter decades of the 19th century.

The Bridgeport Commemorative Half Dollar was authorized by the Act of May 15, 1936, with a minimum production of 25,000 coins, but no set maximum. The coin was issued by Bridgeport Centennial, Inc., and had an official sales price of $2, or four times the coin’s face value – something upon which sales guru Barnum most assuredly would’ve smiled. German-born sculptor Henry G. Kreis designed the Bridgeport Half Dollar, carrying on its obverse a left-facing bust of Barnum surrounded by the inscriptions “BRIDGEPORT CONNECTICUT CENTENNIAL 1836-1936” and “P.T. BARNUM”. The reverse displays an American eagle stylized in the Art Deco motif popular in its day.

An estimated 21,000 Bridgeport halves remain, with most in uncirculated grades. An example in AU50 sells for around $110 while a specimen in MS63 takes $140, illustrating the small spread in price for most specimens grading less than MS65. Gems and superb examples are decidedly scarce, and any graded MS67 is rather rare, with those grading higher nearly elusive. One of the major challenges in scoring a nice specimen comes with the broad surfaces of the eagle on the reverse, which is notorious for fielding nicks, scratches, and other demeriting imperfections. One of the highest prices ever attained for this coin was claimed by a PCGS MS67+ specimen that hammered for $4,080 in a 2019 Heritage Auctions event.

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