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Golden Rules for Making Money by P. T. Barnum (1880) (fourmilab.ch)
227 points by eru on Sept 20, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

Here's a pdf version of the book:


Spectacular article! Here's a bit that could use updating for our modern age:

Encouragement to advertise when you've got something good:

"In a country like this, where nearly everybody reads, and where newspapers are issued and circulated in editions of five thousand to two hundred thousand, it would be very unwise if this channel was not taken advantage of to reach the public in advertising. A newspaper goes into the family, and is read by wife and children, as well as the head of the home; hence hundreds and thousands of people may read your advertisement, while you are attending to your routine business. Many, perhaps, read it while you are asleep."

Is there a modern equivalent? Television? Still? Is there any one thing that truly touches entire families today?

With the rise of marketing it's uncommon for a company to try to reach an entire family. Promotion is more effective when its highly targeted.

Although, TV is probably the best medium for reaching a broad audience.

I'm guessing that depending on what you're trying to sell you might still want to reach the entire family (first thing that comes to mind is cars)

Also amusements parks, museums, day trips, parks, restaurants, cruises, beaches.

Yes. For some reason I thought of "cars", too. Not sure why, but it seems like the only consumer good that still gets passed around.

Bumper stickers?

"Give a boy twenty thousand dollars and put him in business, and the chances are that he will lose every dollar of it before he is a year older."

Overheard at a VC meeting last week...

This reminds me of the book "The Richest Man in Babylon", it has similar parables and written in context of ancient times. Some advice is timeless.

In this book, I love how he talks about financial security as achieving independence.

"It is this go-aheaditiveness, this determination not to let the "horrors" or the "blues" take possession of you, so as to make you relax your energies in the struggle for independence, which you must cultivate. "

Wow, this is surprisingly good.

Indeed it is - and there doesn't seem to be a sign of "there's a sucker born every minute" - in fact several of these express the exact opposite sentiment. i.e. "Be Kind and Polite to Your Customers."

It's not there because it's not his quote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There%27s_a_sucker_born_every_m...

If you read Barnum's works, he has a much less condescending view of his customers than that quote would suggest, which is probably why those who knew him said it was out of character.

Barnum has always been my hero. His autobiography is a great read too:


Henry Ford's book is pretty good, too. (My Life and Work. 1922.)


"Business" in the sense of trading with the people is largely a matter of filling the wants of the people. If you make what they need, and sell it at a price which makes possession a help and not a hardship, then you will do business as long as there is business to do. People buy what helps them just as naturally as they drink water.

Thanks, great book, just finished reading it at your link. Made me wonder if it's still applicable today. Design the perfect product, then optimize the manufacturing process till it's dirt cheap? Definitely won't work with coding.

Henry Ford's book is indeed truly brilliant.

It's to business as Lisp is to programming languages.

I love the language - so many words we don't use anymore, or use differently. Like economy for example - I quite forgot it's earlier meaning (saving). Or lay up.

Also I had never seen "industry" as an adjective.

From wikipedia: "Generally industry is diligence, assiduity, hard work."

One variation of this usage that has survived is "industrious".

An extraordinary document. I think I have never seen such a model of brevity.

I thought they didn't know tobacco was harmful until semi-recently, but this was written in 1880!

It seems that for a long time, people possessed an intuitive notion that smoking was bad (it makes you cough, gives you shortness of breath, etc.) but mostly ignored that intuition.

If you read any old literature, even as far back as the 1800's, you get this feeling. No one ever outright says "this will kill you," but it was certainly regarded as a poor health choice.

The one thing that bugs me about this was, as a kid in a health class, I was shown a video of a little girl and her grandma. The girl asked the grandma "Why do you smoke grandma?" The old lady responded "Because when I was your age, nobody knew that smoking was bad for you."

The bullcrap we were fed as kids is incredible.

Going back as far as 1604, King James I of England had the following to say about smoking:

A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.


James was also an evil fascist. Hitler hated smoking. See the pattern?

"Scholars agree that, in addition to being a teetotaler and a non-smoker, Adolf Hitler practiced some form of vegetarianism." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_of_Adolf_Hitler)

Just for historical curiousity. I do not want to start a debate about the Nazis.


There's a need to have a logical argument. One that can't be drowned with 'but he smokes.'

There should be no difference between 'he knows' & ' he's had it pounded into his head daily.' But there is.

The fact that nicotine is highly addictive probably had some influence there..

The name "coffin nails" is so old that it's gone out of style.

King James and others objected to tobacco when it was first introduced to Britain in the 1600s.

Not much has changed since 1880 =]

Like this nugget:

A man may go on "change" and make fifty or one hundred thousand dollars in speculating in stocks, at a single operation. But if he has simple boldness without caution, it is mere chance, and what he gains to-day he will lose to-morrow.

Whereas technology is constantly changing, the principles of business really haven't changed at all (business is business).

"There is no greater mistake than when a young man believes he will succeed with borrowed money."

Isn't VC money essentially borrowed money?

No. If VC money is for ownership of the startup, then no. If I lend somebody money and they promise to pay it back over N years with X interest, that is a loan. If I give somebody money in exchange for a certain number shares, that is a purchase. I am purchasing ownership in the startup. One does not "pay back" one's investors. Rather one generates a profit for one's investors.

Rules #10 and #11 seems especially applicable to my own situation, when jumping from startup idea to startup idea.

130 year old advice seems more powerful for some reason. Hopefully reading it here is the first step to resolving it.

Some time ago, I got into a discussion with my parents and sibling about role models of past generations. My sister and I were surprised by them offering up P. T. Barnum as a positive role model, and we got into an argument with them, since we believed (like many our age) that he was a well known charlatan and hoaxer. This article of his (as well as an article that Wired magazine did some time back) kind of makes me wonder what happened to his reputation over the years to make our misconceptions about him possible.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master. When you have it mastering you; when interest is constantly piling up against you, it will keep you down in the worst kind of slavery. But let money work for you, and you have the most devoted servant in the world. It is no "eye-servant." There is nothing animate or inanimate that will work so faithfully as money when placed at interest, well secured. It works night and day, and in wet or dry weather.

Tell that to the people whose money markets just returned a loss :)

> If you are losing money, be specially cautious and not tell of it, or you will lose your reputation.

Hasn't that caused a lot of problems?

> you will lose your reputation.

He's talking from personal experience, he did loose a lot of reputation when a company he invested in went bankrupt. So he's not wrong.

> Hasn't that caused a lot of problems?

It depends - if you are holding assets that belong to the customer, or have a contract to do something for a customer then yes.

But if you have a business like his, museum, then there is no reason to say anything - if you go under, at worst someone will be disappointed they can't get in, but they will not loose anything.

This was why P. T. and many of his contemporaries were privately held.

It has caused a lot of problems, but on the web this advice is followed religiously by everyone (yes, You and me included). Otherwise known as good old "fake it till you make it". Also think of that New Yorker cartoon from 1990s "On the internet no one knows you are a dog".

All these fancy looking startups bleeding money by barrels are inseparable from those actually making money.

This is probably his only point that I wouldn't necessarily agree with. The rest of the advice I think is as valuable and timely today as it was then.

If the bank applied the advice "don't endorse without security" the economic disaster we see today wouldn't have occured.

Wow, this is a good article. I thought all of the raving was about nothing, but it is definitely worth the read.

Isn't this Oxymoron?


Because, Transparency Begets Trust.

That's the best submission ever posted here as far as I'm concerned!

I might have to agree with you there. I'm going to hold on to this link.

You should thanks hhm. As far as I can remember he posted the first chapter a while back. (And that's how the book got in my bookmarks in the first place.)

You might also like 'The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin' (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=312332). Mr Franklin also has something to say about making your fortune in an ethical way.

I published the same link a while ago: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=88544

Anyway it's a great link so I guess it doesn't matter much.

I looked into my old bookmarks and found the link. So perhaps I even got it from you back in the day. Thanks!

I had time to read it again now because of your posting, so thank you!

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