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Archive for July, 2018


There may well be a sucker born every minute, but don’t place the credit or blame for that observation on P.T. Barnum.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, the showman perhaps best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, was the source of a number of pithy saying about human nature and business, but perhaps the most widely circulated saying attributed to him is the cynical, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It is cited often in laments about the gullibility of the public.

A friend who posted another of Barnum’s quote on Facebook also posted that the “sucker” quote was not actually Barnum’s. That set me searching.

According to the Quote Investigator website, there is “no persuasive evidence that Phineas Taylor Barnum who died in 1891 spoke or wrote this saying.”

“Researcher Ralph Keyes presented a skeptical stance with his assertion in ‘The Quote Verifier’ that ‘No modern historian takes seriously the routine attribution of this slogan to P. T. Barnum,’” Quote Investigator said.

The website posted a list of related sayings that had been documented, the oldest appearing in 1806. Barnum wasn’t even born until 1810.

In an 1806 an article titled “Essay on False Genius” in “The European Magazine and London Review” had this fictional account involving the reply of salesman “to whom some person had expressed his astonishment at his being able to sell his damaged and worthless commodities, ‘That there vash von fool born every minute.’ And perhaps the calculation might be brought to the proof, that not more than fifty men of genius are born in half a century.”

Without the phonetic spelling: There was one fool born every minute.

Another website, Brook Browse, says that the “sucker” quote was attributed to Barnum in 1868 by a business rival, David Hannum. Hannum had been drawing large crowds to see a “fossilized giant” he had bought, and Barnum created his own giant out of plaster and drew crowds away, infuriating Hannum. Turns out that Hannum’s also was fake, created by an Iowa man — so in the end Hannum was the sucker because he had believed it was real and bought it.

The website Brainy Quote gives a long list of Barnum’s quotes, which cover a variety of topics, only a few of them about business or making money, but even those are much more eloquent than “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

The one that comes closest to making money by drawing people in is, “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

One that I like about money is, “Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master.”

But the one that began my research, pulling me in on Facebook in my friend’s post, has perhaps more resonance for me than all the others:

“He who is without a newspaper is cut off from his species.”

It was true before Barnum said it, but I will happily credit him for that observation.

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