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A magical startup!

by Christine Anne Berger

What is luxury travel? Some say it is about keeping your sanity. Some say it is about time. Some say it is about exceptional experiences. Some say it is about safety and productivity. Steve Jobs asked the Apple board of directors to provide him with a Gulfstream V private jet because he wanted to be more productive and efficient while on business and personal travel. Jackie Chan owns an Embraer Legacy 500 business jet for “fantastic traveling experiences and great convenience”, allowing him “to do more acting and philanthropic works around the world.” He hopes it will become his “mobile home and office.” Richard Branson owns a Dassault Falcon 900EX to fly in private for charity and business trips. A steadily growing number of publicly exposed people, business leaders and entertainers own and lease private business jets as well. Where did all this start? When did luxury travel in bespoke cabins first emerge? Have you ever heard of P.T. Barnum, also known as the greatest showman on Earth?

Entrepreneur extraordinaire P.T. (Phineas Taylor) Barnum was born on July 5th, 1810; one century before the first successful controlled flight took place on Kitty Hawk Beach in North Carolina. Barnum was an American author, publisher, philanthropist, showman, politician and above all the founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum attempted quite a few startups in his life. Although some successfully supported his lifestyle, many of his startups ended badly, including his famous American Museum in New York, which had 15,000 visitors on some days. Tragically the museum burnt to the ground in 1865, resulting in the deaths of many animals. Most of Barnum’s shows and museums were filled to the brim with tricks of the eye, hoaxes and strange exotic stories and people. They earned him the reputation for being a showman who put sensationalism above integrity. Visitors often felt tricked, and yet somehow they loved Barnum for his trickster wit and laughed as they left his shows. It was all about the experience, and Barnum knew it.

“The noblest art is that of making others happy” – P.T. Barnum

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Illustration of three ladies and a gentleman aboard the Pullman car "Belgravia", 19th century. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

All this time Barnum had one dream; he wanted to earn a nationwide reputation as a respected showman. He was 18 when he heard of a woman in Europe who sang opera so angelically that it made grown men cry. Barnum being Barnum, although he had never heard her sing himself, devised a plan to make his mark. He would bring sophisticated, high-brow European opera to American high society. Little did he realize that in the process, he would wind up creating what is considered to be the first VIP private railroad car, completely unaware of what a massive industry it would become in the 21st century. Prior to 1850, rail passengers in the United States would hunker down in smelly chair-lined passenger or sleeping cars. This would clearly not do for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. omniet atempora

Barnum eventually convinced Lind to tour the United States with an astonishing promise of $1,000 per night for up to 150 performances over a two-year period. He sealed the deal with an upfront deposit which required him to mortgage everything he and his wife owned. In addition, the Swedish Nightingale could choose her accompanying musicians, with Barnum covering everyone’s expenses in full.

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Portrait of soprano artist Jenny Lind at Castle Garden. Originally painted in color by German artist Eduard Magnus, 1862. (Photo: Getty Images)

“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” – P.T. Barnum

With an offer as tantalizing as that and despite Barnum’s reputation as a trickster, the Nightingale could not refuse. She landed in New York City on September 1, 1850. Barnum was so successful in advertising her arrival that she was greeted by 30,000 fans, who had also never heard her sing. So many curious admirers lined the waterfront as she disembarked from the steamship Atlantic that the police were needed to maintain order.

Over the following nine months, she would earn more than $350,000 (equivalent to 21 million dollars in today’s money) from her concerts. She donated much of the proceeds to charities, principally for the endowment of free schools in Sweden. The American people fell in love with her voice, demeanor and devotion to charities – so much so that she and her newly wedded husband, Otto Goldschmidt, had almost no privacy. They became exhausted as fans and the press constantly invaded their private life. To resolve this issue and keep his investment healthy and happy, Barnum designed the first ever private railroad car.

“Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” – P.T. Barnum

In 1852, shortly after the couple had wed, Barnum purchased a normal passenger railroad car and stripped it. Then, based on Lind’s requests, he had the car customized and designed as private living quarters. It comprised an exquisite parlor laid out in drawing-room style and embellished with parlor-style furniture, so that Jenny and Otto could temporarily live in comfort while traveling in their home away from home. Barnum’s idea enabled the show to go on and allowed his startup to be successful. His reputation improved and he reaped the financial benefits for some time to come. And so luxury travel in a private cabin was invented, if only just as a means to an end.

With the comfort of a private cabin, Lind was able to continue her singing tour. She could travel from city to city in a relaxing environment that was also safe and free from rude intrusions. Lind was the first person to travel in such a private customized luxury car. Soon Barnum’s idea caught on, and others with the means and a taste for luxury began doing the same. As with Charles Gros and Thomas Edison, where the former thought up the idea of a rotating sound disc and the latter invented the Gramophone, it was George Pullman who would turn Barnum’s idea into a hugely successful luxury travel business.

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Passengers traveling on the English Midland Railway in a Pullman railroad car. Wood engraving, 1876. (Photo: iStockphoto)

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