Skip to main content
Select Source:

Circus and Carnival

CIRCUS AND CARNIVAL


CIRCUS AND CARNIVAL. Circuses and carnivals have played important roles in American life and imagination and continue to influence U.S. entertainment and popular culture. Although the two have separate histories, they share common elements, draw upon overlapping industry sectors and audiences, and have influenced one another for over a century.

Circuses and carnivals have European and English antecedents in medieval fairs, menageries, and performances and have been traced back to the Roman Circus Maximus and ancient fertility rites. The first circus to perform within a ring dates from 1770 when Englishman Philip Astley created an equestrian entertainment that expanded to include acrobats and comic acts. Astley's show soon went on the road and inspired competitors.

The idea quickly spread to America, and by 1785 Philadelphia could boast a permanent circus-like event. Scottish equestrian John Bill Ricketts added spectacle and attracted famous patrons such as George Washington. At the same time, traveling menageries featuring exotic animals became popular, beginning with the exhibition of


Old Bet, an elephant owned by New York entrepreneur Hachaliah Bailey.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the two forms had combined, with pioneers such as George Bailey, nephew of Hachaliah, exhibiting animals during the day and mounting circus performances at night. The addition of wild animals and handlers such as famed lion tamer Isaac A. Van Amburgh added excitement; in 1871, W. C. Coup introduced a second ring.

The transformation of the circus into a national institution was furthered by legendary showman P. T. Barnum, who joined James A. Bailey in 1880 to form the company that was to become Barnum & Bailey. Barnum's fame rested on his promotional genius and exhibition of human oddities, helping to make the "side show" an indispensable element of the circus.

As America expanded westward, so did the circus, which by the 1880s boasted three rings and was using rail transportation. Between 1870 and 1915 the circus evolved into a big business and established itself as an American icon. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the annual circus parade, including animals and performers in full regalia, electrified midwestern communities.

In 1917 the Ringling Brothers, siblings from Wisconsin, purchased Barnum & Bailey and rechristened it "The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows"—or, as it is known to most Americans, "The Greatest Show on Earth." During its heyday, and throughout the twentieth century, Barnum & Bailey recruited some of the most celebrated circus performers in the world, including the great clown Emmett Kelly, the trapeze family known as the Flying Wallendas, and May Wirth, the incomparable equestrian acrobat.

The circus began to slip following World War I, the victim of competing forms of entertainment such as amusement parks, carnivals, radio, and movies. In 1956 Ring-ling Brothers passed into the hands of Irvin Feld, an entrepreneur who modernized the show and the business. In the twenty-first century only a few circuses travel in the United States, but the spectacle retains its appeal, especially to children.

Carnivals

The American carnival built on the tradition of the fair and also borrowed from new forms of entertainment that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, including the Wild West show, the medicine show, and the circus side show. The crucible of the American carnival, however, was the world exposition or fair, which evolved as a monument to technology and progress from agricultural fairs, trade centers, and "pleasure gardens" of medieval and Rennaissance Europe and England. Beginning with London's Crystal Palace in 1851, this phenomenon reached its height with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. Millions of Americans experienced the marvels of electrification and the scientific and technological wonders that were showcased in the beaux arts buildings of the "White City."

The exposition also featured the Midway Plaisance, a thoroughfare crowned by the newly invented Ferris wheel and enlivened by purportedly educational displays of near-naked Native Americans and "savages" from Africa and the South Sea Islands. The popular and lucrative midway led away from the exposition proper to more sensational, privately owned concessions pandering "freaks," sex, and rigged games.

The exposition brought together the elements that defined both the American carnival and the stationary amusement park for over 50 years—mechanized rides, freak shows, participatory games, food, and blatant seediness and hokum. In the years following the exposition, showmen such as Frank C. Bostock and Samuel W. Gumpertz reprised its attractions at Coney Island, New York, where three separate entertainment centers coalesced in the first decade of the twentieth century to create the wild, outré modern amusement park.

By 1920 the United States had over 1,500 amusement parks at the edge of cities, and traveling carnivals supplied similar fun to small towns and local fairs. Gradually, however, the raucous industry felt the impact of local regulation, and many of its popular features wilted. The death knell, however, sounded in 1954 with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. While retaining some of the variety, color, and fantasy of the carnival, Disney and its competitors created an entirely different ambiance of a sanitized, idealized world dramatizing icons and heroes of American culture within the context of American economic and technological power.

The relatively few traveling carnivals that remain have adopted the cultural trappings of the contemporary theme park, writ small. Strates Shows, Inc., for example, a family business organized in 1923, explains the changes this way: "In our technological society, the animals and rare 'freak' shows are a thing of the past, and the famous girl shows have disappeared … Strates Shows stays abreast of the market … through continued commitment to producing good, wholesome family fun."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Brouws, Jeff, and Bruce Caron. Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of the Carnival Midway. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

McGowan, Philip. American Carnival: Seeing and Reading American Culture. Contributions to American Culture Series, #10. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Murray, Marian. Circus! From Rome to Ringling. 1956. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Wilmeth, Don B. "Circus and Outdoor Entertainment." In Concise Histories of American Popular Culture. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, #4, edited by M. Thomas Inge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

PerryFrank

See alsoCounty and State Fairs .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Circus and Carnival." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Circus and Carnival." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-and-carnival

"Circus and Carnival." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-and-carnival

Circus

CIRCUS

Circus was first introduced in Russia in 1793 by Charles Hughes of the Royal Circus of London. Established on a permanent basis in 1853, Russian circus was dominated by foreigners in the early years, such as the Salomanskys of Berlin in Moscow and the Cinizellis of Italy in St. Petersburg. Circuses traveled around with tents, but stationary circuses were also built in largely populated areas in Russia. Stationary circuses are more profitable and can also be active during inclement weather. During Soviet times there were about seventy stationary circuses and about forty remain in Russia in the early twenty-first century.

Circus in Russia has deep roots in the rich Russian cultural traditions, but circus performances in Russia are also known for their social comedies. Circus clowns in prerevolutionary Russia created satirical skits about landowners and merchants. The famous Durov brothers, Anatoly and Vladimir, a clown pair whose underlying purpose with their social comedies was to fight the oppressive tsarist regime, mastered this form. The Durov brothers were also animal tamers who developed the well-known Durov method of humane animal care and training.

The satirical nature of the circus and its appeal as a form of mass entertainment translated well into the Soviet world of popular culture. Intellectuals attacked the circus in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and labeled it an institution of superstition, animal cruelty, and vulgarity. Others noted that the circus offered an alternative mode of presenting historical and political themes through satirical clowning. The circus was nationalized in 1919 and the Commissariat of Enlightenment created a new department for it within its theater section. During the civil war the circus was turned to revolutionary uses, and later during World War II circus performers expressed patriotic feelings by staging victorious battles and honoring Russia's wartime allies.

The circus survived the Bolshevik cultural revolution well as circus acts already had a tradition of conveying political messages. In addition to political preaching, Soviet circus successfully mixed comedy and clowning with moralizing. During the Nikita Khrushchev years, popular routines addressed child upbringing, warned against foreign fashion, excessive drinking, stilyagi, and other social menaces. Circus continued to amuse Soviet citizens into the Leonid Brezhnev era, focusing on popular acts such as acrobatics, high wire, dancing bears, Cossack riders, and clowning. Clowns remained the greatest stars of the Russian circus.

Although tiring to the Soviet audience, Russian circus was conservative and continued to present internationally acclaimed ethnic variety shows well into the 1980s. With perestroika the circus abandoned the standard Soviet elements of the circus, such as folk culture, appraisal of World War II heroism, and politics. In the early twenty-first century, pop music and skits devoid of political or moral preaching draw huge crowds as the professionalism of Russian circus artists is widely acclaimed. With changing times, Russian circus has reinvented itself and continues to be a valued form of entertainment in Russia.

See also: cultural revolution

bibliography

Hammarstrom, David Lewis. (1983). Circus Rings around Russia. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Stites, Richard. (1992) Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

RÓsa MagnÚsdÓttir

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Circus." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Circus." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/circus

"Circus." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/circus

circus

circus [Lat.,=ring, circle], historically, the arena associated with the horse and chariot races and athletic contests known in ancient Rome as the Circensian games. The Roman circus was a round or oval structure with tiers of seats for spectators, enclosing a space in which the races, games, and gladiatorial combats took place. Underneath were dressing rooms, dens for wild beasts, and rooms where properties were stored. The Circus Maximus, presumably built in the reign of Tarquin I (c.616–c.578 BC), and rebuilt by Julius Caesar, was reported by Pliny in his Natural History to have a capacity of 250,000, though this figure is suspiciously large. Other famous circi of Rome were the Circus Flaminius (221 BC); the Circus Neronis, of Caligula and Nero, at which many Christians perished; and the Circus Maxentius. The circus of Septimius Severus at Constantinople and many others were often scenes of riot and bloodshed between factions of charioteers. The games, aside from races, were brutal and bloody, and for this reason the Greeks, even under Roman domination, never really accepted the circus.

The modern circus, which originated in performances of equestrian feats in a horse ring strewn with sawdust, dates from the closing years of the 18th cent. The circus is traditionally a nomadic tent show, with trained animals, acrobats, and clowns. The main tent, known as the big top, is often surrounded by various concessions and sideshows with "freaks" and wild animals. Even before 1830, traveling circuses were common in the United States and in England. After 1873 two rings were used in the main tent and the three-ring circus, as we know it today, was initiated by James A. Bailey. The most celebrated circus in America was "The Greatest Show on Earth" of P. T. Barnum, which, in merging with Bailey's, became Barnum and Bailey's. On Bailey's death in 1907 the circus was purchased by Ringling Brothers, and in 1919 the two circuses were combined. Since 1969, Ringling Brothers has had two large circuses on tour that play mostly indoors and visit almost every major U.S. city annually.

The traveling circus, in its heyday from 1880 to 1920, declined in the 1950s and 60s. By the 1980s, however, more than 30 circuses were touring the United States and Canada. Outstanding among contemporary circuses are two small and sophisticated shows, the New York City–based Big Apple Circus and the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. The latter is the most elaborate and best known exponent of the form called cirque nouveau. A type of modern circus without animal acts, it is characterized by a mixture of traditional circus arts with poetic spectacle, music, and dance and is practiced by a number of European and Canadian troupes.

See studies by H. R. North and A. Hatch (1960); E. C. May (1932, repr. 1963); C. P. Fox and T. Parkinson (1970); M. Murray (1956, repr. 1973); G. Speight (1980); L. D. Hammarstrom, John Ringling North and the Circus (1992).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"circus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"circus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/circus

"circus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/circus

circus

circus (pl. circuses).
1. Oblong roofless enclosure, or hippodrome, semicircular at one end, having tiered seats for spectators on both sides and round the curved end, and a central barrier (spina) on which stood obelisks, monuments, etc. It was used for Roman chariot-races and other spectacles, so had carceres or starting-gates arranged in a curve with its centre a point on the axis of the track the horses would take at the start of the race, thus ensuring each competitor had an equal distance to travel to the centre of the broad route.

2. Unified group of buildings, with concave façades, fronting a circular open space, as in C18 town-planning schemes by Wood in Bath and Nash in London.

3. Circular road or junction from which streets radiate.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"circus." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"circus." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus

"circus." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus

circus

cir·cus / ˈsərkəs/ • n. (pl. -cus·es ) 1. a traveling company of acrobats, trained animals, and clowns that gives performances, typically in a large tent, in a series of different places. ∎  (in ancient Rome) a rounded or oblong arena lined with tiers of seats, used for equestrian and other sports and games. ∎ inf. a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity: a media circus. 2. [in place names] Brit. a rounded open space in a city where several streets converge: Piccadilly Circus.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"circus." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"circus." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-0

"circus." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-0

circus

circus building surrounded with rising tiers of seats XVI; circular area for equestrian and acrobatic feats; circular range for houses XVIII. — L. circus circle. circus = Gr. kírkos, kríkos ring. circle. prob. rel. to L. curvus CURVE.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"circus." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"circus." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-1

"circus." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus-1

Circus

Circus (harriers) See ACCIPITRIDAE.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Circus." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Circus." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus

"Circus." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus

circus

circusBacchus, Caracas, Gracchus •Damascus •Aristarchus, carcass, Hipparchus, Marcus •discus, hibiscus, meniscus, viscous •umbilicus • Copernicus •Ecclesiasticus • Leviticus • floccus •caucus, Dorcas, glaucous, raucous •Archilochus, Cocos, crocus, focus, hocus, hocus-pocus, locus •autofocus •fucus, Lucas, mucous, mucus, Ophiuchus, soukous •ruckus • fuscous • abacus •diplodocus • Telemachus •Callimachus • Caratacus • Spartacus •circus

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"circus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"circus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus

"circus." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/circus