The American circus represents a synthesis of various international entertainment traditions. The traveling menagerie, clowning, acrobatics, trick riding, wire walking, juggling, and sleight of hand all coalesced inside a circular arena surrounded by an outer ring of spectators that came to define this unique form of entertainment. The birth of the American circus roughly correlated with the birth of the nation; the circus's growth and development—from the relative intimacy of the early one-ring show, to a gargantuan Gilded Age aggregation—paralleled the nation's transformation from a pastoral society to an industrial powerhouse.
The Early American Circus: 1792–1865
An English trick rider, John Bill Ricketts, brought the circus to the United States in 1792 when he opened a riding school in Philadelphia, the new nation's most populous city. Ricketts was a pupil of the English horseman Philip Astley, who started a school for trick riders in London in 1768. Opening his inaugural show in April 1793, Ricketts's program included rope walking, clowning, and acrobatic riding. His respectable audience of Philadelphia society (including President George Washington) was suitably impressed. Ricketts and subsequent competitors performed in ungainly, expensive wooden arenas in profitable urban centers like New York City and Boston, where they stationed themselves for months at a time before moving to the next city. However, these wooden arenas were tinderboxes. Although many showmen forbade smoking at the circus, devastating fires were common and forced several proprietors out of business. Ricketts journeyed into Maine and the Canadian wilderness in 1797, but other showmen stayed in the lucrative urban market. Competition became so fierce by 1800 that Ricketts departed the U.S. mainland, sailed for the West Indies, and vanished at sea.
The horse was the primary animal star at these early shows. Although the elephant and tiger have achieved iconic status in defining "circus" in the contemporary cultural imagination, neither animal was part of the first American circuses. All were exhibited in a then separate entertainment, the traveling animal menagerie. Showing at tavern yards, town squares, and theaters since the seventeenth century, scraggly menageries roamed under cover of darkness so that residents would not get a free "peek" at the animals. A lion first arrived in 1716; a tiger initially came in 1806; and the eventual marquee animal feature of the circus, the elephant, first landed in 1796. The ship captain Jacob Crowninshield, a native of Salem, Massachusetts, purchased the youthful female elephant for $450 in Bengal, India, but promptly sold her for a reported $10,000 shortly after reaching New York City on 13 April 1796. Exhibited from Providence, Rhode Island, to New Orleans, Louisiana, over the next nine years, "Rajah" dazzled thousands of people, including President John Adams, wherever she was shown. Indeed, the experience of "seeing the elephant" was so profound that this phrase soon became a metaphor for experiencing battle. Other profitable menagerie elephants followed "Rajah," including "Old Bet," an African female pachyderm, who toured the eastern seaboard from 1804 to 1816, and "Little Bet," another female, who was exhibited from 1817 to 1826. Both elephants were shot and killed by provincial northeastern spectators for reasons unknown.
Old Bet and Little Bet were owned by a businessman named Hachaliah Bailey (1775–1845), based in Somers, New York, who became a powerhouse in the traveling menagerie business in the 1830s. As legend has it, Bailey and his partners declared that they would "put [their] foot down flat" to play the state of New York exclusively as a monopoly operation. Critics subsequently referred to this combination as the "Flatfoots." Another Somers showman named Joshua Purdy Brown (1802?–1834) adopted the canvas tent in 1825. Able to set up and tear down with relative speed and little capital, Brown moved his circus into isolated rural areas and instituted the daily show stops that quickly came to define the American circus. In 1828, Brown was the first to merge the traveling animal menagerie with the circus, thus giving the circus its recognizably modern form. Brown's ability to move his nomadic tent show into the southern Mississippi River Valley and the old Northwest Territories was made possible by internal improvements such as roads and canals, and by new technologies like the steam ship. After the Erie Canal was finished in 1825, circus showmen had ready access to the Midwest, a burgeoning and profitable population center.
Giant steamship circuses containing upward of a thousand spectators glided down the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers in antebellum America. These "river palaces," as they were known, treated audiences to traditional circus acrobatics and animal acts, in addition to contemporary temperance dramas like Ten Nights in a Bar Room. A key circus figure in antebellum America was the clown; show proprietor Dan Rice (1823–1900) gained national visibility while performing this role on Gilbert "Doc" Spalding's (1812–1880) floating North American Circus in 1844. Endowed with an enormous voice, astonishing memory, and keen political wit, Rice dazzled audiences with his quick repartee and his menagerie of trained animals such as his blind, stair-climbing horse Excelsior Jr. Although Rice found his greatest fame on his own show, "Dan Rice's Great Show," a tent circus in the 1850s and 1860s, his rise to national prominence was launched on the river palaces. During the Civil War, the nation's riverine topography became a critical site for military sieges and the transport of troops and supplies, which consequently put an end to the age of the great river palaces. The Civil War also damaged the national profile of Dan Rice, who denounced abolitionism from the circus ring in New Orleans on the same night that Louisiana seceded from the Union.
The Gilded Age Railroad Circus
Although the majority of circuses remained horse-drawn wagon shows until the expansion of the automobile in the 1920s, the largest outfits grew rapidly once they perfected the use of the railroad after the Civil War. A handful of circuses traveled by railroad in the 1830s, but they bore little resemblance to the giant railroad outfits of the 1880s and beyond. Smaller than their wagon show competitors, these early railroad shows contained no menagerie, sideshow, or street parade. They were bare-bones operations composed of a canvas big top, assembly equipment, a sparse collection of performers, and a few animals. Audiences felt cheated by these stripped down railroad shows and savvy wagon showmen responded accordingly in their advertising campaigns: "This is no railroad show!" Rail travel was cumbersome because track gauge was not yet nationally standardized, nor had circus proprietors created an effective system for loading and unloading their stock, tents, and supplies. Until the post–Civil War years, many so-called "railroad" circuses were also "gilley" shows because they carried all supplies from the railroad depot to the show grounds by hand, a dangerous and time-consuming procedure. Moreover, railroad travel was financially risky: Showmen had to pay all railroad-related costs up front, whereas wagon proprietors had only to purchase the lot rental and the license in advance. However, railroad travel afforded circus workers a sound rest between stops; in addition, a newly standardized transcontinental railroad from 1869 onward meant that circus showmen could now travel coast to coast. Indeed, just weeks after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, Dan Castello's Circus and Menagerie, traveling overland part of the time, became the first American circus to make a transcontinental tour, thus effectively nationalizing the circus's marketplace.
In 1871, the museum proprietor, best-selling author, and former politician P. T. Barnum (1811–1891) entered the circus business with two seasoned circus partners from Wisconsin, W. C. Coup (1836–1895) and Dan Castello (1832?–1909). When their circus moved to the rails in 1872, Coup helped design special railroad cars that expedited the loading and unloading of the wagons. Railroad companies offered the largest railroad shows discounted rates, which allowed the circus to grow in terms of its scale and content. In 1880, Barnum merged his operations with those of the veteran proprietor James A. Bailey (1846–1906), and the following year, their three-ring circus was born. Thereafter, the biggest railroad circuses soon contained multiple rings, two stages, an outer hippodrome track, a sideshow, parade, grand entry, spectacle, menagerie, and after-show concert.
In the competitive Gilded Age marketplace, the biggest circuses became virtual monopolies and tried to run their competitors out of business with charges of fraud and by sheer physical intimidation. After the Ringling Bros. circus rose quickly from a small, midwestern wagon outfit in 1884 to a railroad show with a national market in 1890, the five Ringling brothers faced intense opposition from better-established shows like Barnum and Bailey, the Adam Forepaugh circus, and the Sells Brothers circus. The Ringling brothers constantly faced "sticker wars" as competing shows tore down their posters at future show stops and brawled with the Ringlings' advance advertising team.
Gilded Age showmen were pioneers in the nascent field of market research and advertising. In determining where to perform most profitably, circus proprietors analyzed complex variables such as an area's incidence of drought and rain, bank clearings, crop reports, factory conditions, and the number of resorts. Once they chose their route, they sent teams of "advance men" to blanket future show stops across the country with some 5,000 colorful posters per locality. In advance of "Circus Day," railroad companies offered audiences discounted "excursion fares" from distant hamlets to town for the day of the show. On Circus Day itself, towns became temporary cities as thousands of people from all walks of life flocked to the show. The elaborate set-up and tear-down of a tenacre "tented city" was even part of the show as audiences rose before dawn and stayed past dark to watch the workingmen's efficient, assembly line–style performance of labor. The scene was much the same in large urban centers. During the free morning parade, schools closed. Shops offered Circus Day bargains to keep folks in a spending mood—which the circus itself encouraged mightily as audiences parted with their money on concessions, an extra dime for the sideshow, or after-show concert.
During the Gilded Age, P. T. Barnum and the Ringling brothers recognized women and children as an important audience base. In contrast to the rough-and-tumble adult male crowds, grifters, and gamblers who dominated the antebellum wagon shows, Gilded Age railroad showmen promoted their circuses as safe, respectable, educational family fare. Like Dan Rice had done during the 1850s, these proprietors targeted the growing middle class as their ideal audience. Well versed in the art of attracting middle-class customers when he owned the American Museum in New York City (1841–1868), P. T. Barnum emphasized propriety and wholesome entertainment, perhaps his biggest contribution to the American circus. He beckoned children to the show with half-price tickets (rationalizing that kids would be accompanied by full-paying adults). A vehement temperance advocate, Barnum stipulated that all of his employees remain sober.
In 1891, the Ringling brothers similarly began calling themselves a "New School of American Showmen" because they prohibited graft, alcohol, and gambling on the show grounds. By 1894, they were widely known as a "Sunday School" show that hired Pinkerton railroad detectives to ensure a crime-free environment. Both Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth" and the Ringling Bros. circus emphasized the high moral standards of their performers as well. In particular, showmen were eager to offset the potentially lurid implications of their female acrobats and riders who—by necessity of their athletic labor—wore tight leotards and brief skirts (which made them appear virtually nude according to the standards of the day). Proprietors crafted elaborate publicity stories of circus women's high moral standards, their modesty, superior physical stamina, their impending marriages, and their close relationships with their families in press releases that mirrored a nascent culture of celebrity.
Despite showmen's emphasis on wholesome propriety, they ultimately had little control over the some 20,000 people who flocked into town on Circus Day. Fights erupted, horse thieves and pickpockets prowled the grounds, men drank, idle teenagers set fires, and voyeurs peeked into the women's dressing tent. Some local residents, itching for travel and opportunity, even "ran away" with the circus once it rumbled to the next show stop. Given the racially diverse audiences that flocked to the show, Circus Day also served as an occasion for racial violence.
The Changing Place of the Circus in American Culture
By 1900, the largest railroad circuses offered their audiences a dizzying window into the wider world, including a menagerie of exotic animals stationed alongside an ethnological congress of so-called "strange and savage tribes" from around the world, and a reenactment of historical or contemporary events such as key scenes from the American Revolution, Indian Wars, or the recent Spanish-American War (1898). But during the 1920s, the vast railroad circus began its gradual retreat. Fewer independent circuses existed because gigantic new combinations like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus and the American Circus Corporation bought out competing shows. The largest showmen largely abandoned the free pre-show circus parade and the historical spectacle in an era when film and radio were offering audiences even more exacting facsimile representations of the world.
The circus faced other setbacks as well. During World War II, the circus traveled under the auspices of the Office of Defense Transportation, and attendance figures were solid; however, a tragic big-top fire at Hartford, Connecticut, in July 1944 killed 168 people. The tent had been waterproofed with a volatile mixture of paraffin and gasoline and consequently burst into flames by a lighted cigarette or match. The show's management vehemently declared that the federal government had denied the circus access to wartime priority fireproofing materials. But this claim was dubious; consequently, lawsuits and indictments followed, and the nation's largest circus nearly unraveled in the fire's aftermath.
Restive laborers provided yet another challenge to the American railroad circus: Faced with wage cuts, unionized circus workers engaged in a bitter, protracted strike in 1938, as part of the broader industrial labor movement during the Great Depression; and from 1955 to 1956, the Teamsters Union, under the leadership of Jimmy Hoffa, engaged in an unsuccessful but brutal union drive that prompted the showman John Ringling North to abandon the canvas big top in favor of indoor arenas—a move that dramatically reduced the workforce of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus in 1956.
During the Cold War, the biggest circuses lost money, owing to rising railroad costs and falling attendance figures as consumers and capital moved to the suburban periphery. Moreover, popular tastes were changing. In the jet age, many audiences now considered the circus to be old fashioned. Recent transportation technologies—taken in conjunction with a burgeoning tourist industry—enabled Americans to visit faraway lands. Furthermore, new media like television and movie documentaries largely supplanted the circus as a site of education and amusement. Yet the circus's live (and thus unpredictable) presence has allowed it to endure, although in a truncated form. In the late twentieth century, this venerable American entertainment institution began to enjoy a renaissance. Nurtured in the vibrant, countercultural street theater scene of the 1960s, a new generation of circus performers and impresarios such as Hovey Burgess and Paul Binder created thriving new shows such as Circus Flora and the Big Apple Circus, whose one-ring intimacy echoed that of the antebellum circus. Furthermore, the American circus has been enlivened by the arrival of foreign circuses, most notably Cirque du Soleil ("circus of the sun"). Founded in Quebec by a French Canadian street performer named Guy Laliberté in 1984, this circus has become a global, multimillion-dollar enterprise. The show is animal free, which makes it a favorite among animal rights activists. It is also tremendously expensive: Ticket prices range from $45 to well over $150. Consequently, this "boutique circus" targets a mostly middle- and upper-class audience base, a shadow of a more democratic form of entertainment a hundred years ago that shut entire towns down across the nation on Circus Day.
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Janet M. Davis