Circuses and Spectacles

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Circuses and spectacles must stand at the center of any substantive discussion of nineteenth-century American popular culture. The circus, an itinerant entertainment comprising the exhibition of animals and the performances of skilled entertainers within rings, first appeared in America in 1793. The commercial display of spectacles, the exhibition of persons, animals, or objects possessed of unusual characteristics, first appeared in American museums perhaps as early as 1810. Although some early-nineteenth-century circuses featured displays of human or animal spectacles, the two entertainment forms did not fully merge until after the Civil War, when tented troupes consistently carried "museums" or "sideshows" of spectacles along with their traditional circus exhibitions.

It is important to note that the transportation and market revolutions, as much as the creative minds of showmen, afforded larger numbers of nineteenth-century Americans the opportunity to patronize these performances. Indeed, by the postbellum period, the spread of rail lines across America allowed leading showmen to undertake national tours that brought their outfits into the rural West and South. Previously, the poor character of the nation's road system had made extensive tours of the American backcountry an arduous undertaking for circus companies because they almost all ambulated by wagon prior to the Civil War. By the 1870s a person living outside a railroad town in rural Mississippi had the chance to see the same show that had just finished a stand in New York or Washington, D.C. Moreover, the growth of a cash-based economy helped make professional entertainment a purchasable commodity, thereby encouraging increasing numbers of Americans to turn out whenever a show raised a big top in their home towns. All of these factors aided the rise of the circus to its position as the nation's premier form of mass entertainment by the end of the nineteenth century.

Still, the circus's key contribution to the development of an American, rather than regional, popular culture involved more than just the exhibitions themselves. Circus owners and advertisers made their own singular contribution to the language of nineteenth-century America as they produced innumerable pamphlets, couriers, heralds, and posters replete with vivid and hyperbolic textual descriptions of their acts and exhibits. In doing so, they helped make exaggeration a key component of American advertising. In addition, showmen like P. T. Barnum (1810–1891) produced best-selling biographies that detailed both their rise to power and the roles that their most famous exhibits played in their success. The creative minds behind the display and marketing of the nation's circuses and spectacles altered the nation's vocabulary as much as they did its entertainment.


No single individual did more to popularize spectacles than the circus proprietor, museum owner, and author Phineas Taylor Barnum. P. T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810 to a farm family, but he rejected an agrarian life in favor of the merchant business. As a young man, he worked as a shop clerk and a lottery manager. After a brief career as a newspaper editor, Barnum abandoned conventional commercial pursuits in favor of a life of an entertainment impresario. His career in this profession eventually saw him assume the role of the nation's leading showman. His heady success stemmed from a variety of factors, but perhaps none were more important than his fundamental understanding that nineteenth-century Americans had a seemingly insatiable appetite for spectacles that exploited issues of race, natural history, and corporeal difference.

Barnum's first major marketing and entertainment triumph came in 1835 when he purchased an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth. Upon initial examination, Heth seemed no different than any other wizened, superannuated slave woman, but her putative history made her a potentially profitable attraction. According to her Philadelphia-based owners, she was 161 years old and had been the nursemaid of George Washington. Perhaps convinced by a seemingly authentic bill of sale bearing the date of 1727, Barnum bought Heth for one thousand dollars and put her on display in New York. To garner public attention, the showman issued a pamphlet detailing her purported biography, and Gotham crowds flocked to see her. Barnum then took her on tour throughout New England and continued to show her until her death in 1836.

Yet even after her passing, Barnum continued to make use of her profitability as a curiosity. Upon her death, Barnum engaged a doctor to perform an autopsy on her. The physician concluded after conducting his examination that she could not have been as old as was claimed, thus bringing Barnum's reputation for veracity into question. Regardless, Barnum's public image hardly suffered, and in any event, he began to focus on efforts to find a grander stage upon which to display his attractions.

In 1841 Barnum began negotiating for the purchase of a New York City institution, Scudder's American Museum. Unlike more rarefied establishments that shared the same appellation, Scudder's "Museum" featured little in the way of truly edifying specimens of natural history. Rather, it offered a hodgepodge of cheap curiosities, second-rate performers, and lectures of dubious educational value. Despite these manifest flaws, Barnum bought the museum, renamed it Barnum's American Museum, and opened for business on 1 January 1842. He quickly moved to improve its holdings, adding trained canines, a group of Native American performers, and a number of obese, towering, and diminutive persons, and put them all on public display.

Later that year, Barnum bought a most unusual new specimen for his museum. The "Fejee Mermaid," a desiccated object consisting of an hominid's upper body and a fishlike tail below the torso, had supposedly emerged from the waters off Fiji before ending up in England, Boston, and finally, in the hands of Barnum. Barnum helped spread the word of his new attraction by printing up thousands of inexpensive but detailed pamphlets trumpeting its singular wonders. The resulting sensation brought thousands of visitors through his museum. Patrons stood in front of the display, stared at the specimen, and argued about whether it was a genuine marvel of natural history or a clever fraud. As had been the case with the age of Joice Heth, the actual authenticity of the Fejee Mermaid mattered little as long as Barnum's pockets were lined in the process. Incidentally, in later years, Barnum would concede that his mermaid "specimen" was a fake.

But Barnum's greatest antebellum sensation could not be called a fake or a fraud. In late 1842 Barnum learned that a midget four-year-old boy named Charles Stratton (1838–1883), who appeared perfectly normal in all respects except his tiny proportions, dwelled in his home state of Connecticut. Barnum quickly came to a contractual arrangement with the boy's parents, dubbed him "General Tom Thumb," and put him on display in the museum. Stratton gave speeches and performed as a variety of characters in the museum's lecture hall. The following year, Barnum took Stratton to England, creating much excitement among the populace of London. In fact, the crowning achievement of this English tour came when Stratton performed for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. "Tom Thumb" had brought Barnum international acclaim and made him America's most influential entertainment magnate.

Significantly, even those unable to see Barnum's attractions had a chance to learn about them from the pen of Barnum himself. In 1855 he published the first of his two autobiographies, The Life of P. T. Barnum. In the volume, Barnum tells of his Yankee upbringing as well as his successes with Heth, the Fejee Mermaid, the American Museum, and Tom Thumb. Barnum would follow this work with a second autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs (1869). Both books were best-sellers that went through several printings.

Sadly, Barnum's collection of attractions was largely lost in two disastrous conflagrations. His museum, a veritable New York landmark, burned down in 1865 and its replacement burned in 1868, seemingly destroying Barnum's fortunes as a showman along with his place of business. But rather than allowing these catastrophes to drive him from the entertainment profession, the ever-resourceful Barnum once again shifted his resources and focus to an industry he had worked in during the 1830s, the circus business.


The first traveling shows of significance in the early nineteenth century were menageries, or outfits that displayed exotic animals. By the 1830s circus troupes began to challenge menageries for the entertainment monies of Americans. These early circuses were small affairs that moved overland in caravans of wagons or, less commonly, by steamboat. The staffs of these shows were small and their performances were modest in scope. When Barnum traveled with Aaron Turner's wagon circus from 1836 to 1838, he performed multiple roles by selling tickets and by keeping the outfit's books. And when the show raised its canvas tent, it featured only a handful of entertainers, all of whom performed within a single ring.

Yet by this time, some showmen began to offer shows that featured the exhibitions of wild animals and the performances of clowns, riders, and acrobats. This fusion of both genres won wide public acclaim, as perspicacious impresarios quickly learned that if they displayed their wild animals prior to their circus performances, religious-minded patrons would turn out to see the wonders of God's animal creation and then depart before the main show got underway. In this way, churchgoers could avoid viewing performers wearing skimpy outfits and listening to clowns cracking off-color jokes.

The Civil War disrupted the ability of these shows to undertake national tours but by 1865 showmen began to carry their troupes into the South and West once again. Initially, the touring method featured by these shows differed little than the approach taken by their antebellum predecessors. They planned their tour routes in the hopes of moving between ten and fifteen miles between daily stands, assuming favorable weather and road conditions. These shows sought audiences where they could find them, raising their single tents in both larger towns and at country crossroads.

In 1871, however, P. T. Barnum and two other leading showmen conceived of a new way of transporting and presenting a circus performance. Rather than moving by wagon, these men put their new show on rails and routed their troupes through the nation's cities and growing railroad towns. The more efficient mode of movement aside, rail transport would allow the outfit to carry and display more attractions and curiosities than any prior show. In fact, "P. T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome" featured three interconnected but separate canvas enclosures: a museum tent, a menagerie tent, and finally, a main circus tent. Although Barnum's competitors felt certain the operation would financially collapse from its high overhead costs, the show enjoyed a highly profitable season. Unsurprisingly, the three-tent presentation became the industry standard by 1872.

To attract both the literate and illiterate to their performances, showmen distributed textually dense handbills to curious readers and pasted up colorful posters in the communities where they were scheduled to appear. In both cases, advertisers used artful exaggeration and seemingly erudite language to give their shows an air of excitement and an elevated character. Hence, an image of a hippopotamus on a circus poster invariably came described as "The Blood-Sweating Behemoth of Holy Writ," a reference to the giant creature described in the Book of Job. Similarly, circus scribes gave a simple ballet performance a rarefied air by calling it a "grand terpsichorean divertissement." Lastly, showmen claimed that their traveling sideshows, or "Museums," would contain not objects of transparent fraudulence but rather the "choicest excerpts from the realms of Zoology, Ornithology, Geology, Ichthyology, Conchology, Entomology, Anthropology, Mechanics, [and] Numismatics." The fact that the majority of individuals who read such descriptions probably had no idea what most of these categories comprised mattered less than the fact that the exhibitions sounded edifying and therefore morally upright. Notwithstanding issues of morality, the traveling circus remained the nation's leading commercial entertainment until the 1920s, when motion pictures and professional sports began to erode its popularity.

Arguably, the most important impact that circuses and spectacles had on nineteenth-century America stemmed from their ability to expand the cultural horizons of millions of Americans who had not ventured beyond the confines of their own counties, much less the bounds of their nation. Nineteenth-century circuses carried exotic animals and amazing performers into the American backcountry at a time when zoos were nonexistent. In much the same way, spectacles like Barnum's FeJee Mermaid forced those that set their eyes upon it to ponder the existence of a creature that seemed to defy the laws of nature. With their carefully phrased yet often exaggerated descriptions of their achievements and exhibits alike, the written works of industry advertisers and impresarios further contributed to this challenge to the conventional, known, and understood aspects of life. In sum, circuses and spectacles pushed the boundaries of American popular culture and helped set the stage for the entertainment excesses and media saturation of the century that followed.

See alsoAutobiography; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Theater


Primary Works

Barnum, P. T. Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum. Hartford, Conn.: J. B. Burr, 1869.

Coup, W. C. Sawdust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus. Washington, D.C.: Paul A. Ruddell, 1901.

Robinson, Gil. Old Wagon Show Days. Cincinnati: Brockwell, 1925.

Secondary Works

Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

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

Bondeson, Jan. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Carlyon, David. Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. "The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel." In his Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South, pp. 3–23. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Thayer, Stuart. Traveling Showmen: The American Circus before the Civil War. Detroit: Astley and Ricketts, 1997.

Thomson, Rosemary Garland, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Wallace, Irving. The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum. New York: Knopf, 1959.

Gregory J. Renoff