Bob Brooke presents the history of the circus in America.
AMERICA'S LOVE affair
with the circus has lasted for over 200 years. It outlasted
the minstrel show, the medicine show and vaudeville. It glitters
with spangles, smells of fresh sawdust and excited animals,
tastes like peanuts and popcorn, and sounds like an old-time
poster featuring Jumbo, the world's largest elephant.
Ernest Hemingway, a lifelong circus lover, once wrote, "The
circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.
Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the circus
is good for you. It's the only spectacle I know that, while
you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream."
The circus came to the US on 3 April 1793. John Bill Rickets,
an English equestrian rider, used a ring and added acrobats,
a rope walker and a clown to his equestrian act. But the circus
didn't have an elephant - at least not yet.
The elephant didn't get into the circus until the 1800s. Hackaliah
Bailey, a farmer from Somers, New York, had a brother who was
a sea captain. The brother, while in London, bought a female
African elephant at auction for $20 and sold it to Bailey for
The captain put the elephant on board a sloop bound up the Hudson
River for Sing Sing, the nearest river town to Bailey's home.
Bailey walked the animal, which he called Old Bet, from Sing
Sing to Somers, 56 miles away. He walked the elephant only by
night so that the public wouldn't glimpse the beast along the
route "for nothing". During the day, he exhibited the elephant
for a small fee and began to make a profit.
Bailey's success encouraged others to invest in unusual animals
for exhibition and take them on tour. Unfortunately, a ruffian
in Maine shot Old Bet to death in 1816.
Old Bet's death didn't stop her from going on exhibition. Nine
months later, advertisements began appearing in New York newspapers
saying that Bailey had had the remains of Old Bet stuffed and
preserved. For the next four years, Old Bet's remains toured
After John Bill Rickets was lost in a shipwreck as he headed
for England, the circus in America almost disappeared. No superstars
like Rickets caught the fancy of the public. However another
idea was catching on: the traveling menagerie.
tamer Isaac Van Amburgh (courtesy Circus World Museum).
At first, entrepreneurs put individual wild animals on display
and charged admission. As time went by, exhibitors began adding
more animals to their shows. By the early 1820s there were 30
or more traveling menageries touring the eastern US. It wasn't
until the late 1830s that promoters figured out a way to combine
the menagerie with the circus.
Cat acts in the US began in 1833, when Isaac Van Amburgh first
stepped into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard and
a panther. Dressed like a Roman gladiator in toga and sandals,
Van Amburgh emphasized his domination of the animals by beating
them into compliance with a crowbar and thrusting his arm into
their mouths, daring them to attack. When he came under attack
for spreading cruelty and moral ruin, Van Amburgh quoted the
Bible: "Didn't God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have
dominion over every animal on the earth?" To enhance his case,
Van Amburgh actually acted out scenes in the Bible, forcing
a lion to lie down with a lamb and even bringing a child from
the audience to join them in the ring.
Amburgh's vicious theatrics gave rise to the so-called American
style of feline acts, a style that reached its peak a century
later with Clyde Beatty.
Beatty was one of the circus' great wild animal trainers
(courtesy Circus World Museum).
The press regularly attacked circuses. A Staten Island newspaper
pointed out that a single visit of the Great Eastern Circus
took from the community "enough money to sustain three missionaries
among the heathen for a year."
Eventually, menageries began using equestrians and clowns to
present performances in circus rings, so the distinction between
circus and menagerie gradually faded. They traveled at night
in wagon trains over country roads often a foot deep in mud,
covering only two or three miles an hour. These were the so-called
mud shows. The longest distance they could cover was 10 or 15
miles. A hostler rode ahead of the wagons to find the shortest
route and to "rail" every fork and crossroad by taking a rail
from a farmer's fence and placing it across the road that was
not to be taken so that the wagons would avoid making a wrong
An advance agent ballyhooed the show, arriving on horseback
about a week ahead of it. He would ring a bell, beat a drum,
or blow a bugle to get folks' attention, then talk up the show
while persuading tavern owners and storekeepers to let him tack
up his bills, usually in return for free passes to the performance.
On circus day, a clown would come into town a couple of hours
before the circus enticing the townspeople with acrobatics,
clowning and snappy jokes. Then the wagons would arrive. The
regular members of the troupe split the profits, with each expected
to perform several jobs. Owners seldom paid salaries.
The ring was always the heart of the circus. When the circuses
first took to the roads, they played in enclosures made by surrounding
the ring with sailcloth sidewalls stretched around posts and
trees. There was no roof, so if it rained, the show couldn't
Joshua Purdy Brown, another native of Somers, New York, put
up the first circus tent in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1825. The
simple idea of a canvas tent that was easily portable yet kept
both rain and blazing sun off performers and spectators alike
proved the perfect innovation.
The following year, Nathan Howes pitched a round tent 90 feet
in diameter over his ring. On a windy day, the tent sounded
like a windjammer under full sail. This was the first Big Top.
While European circuses had tents designed with four center
poles forming a square to accommodate their one-ring design
while expanding the area for seating, the American Big Top put
its tent poles in a single-file line as the circus expanded
into two, and then three, rings, enlarging the area for performers
as well as the audience.
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born on 5 July 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut,
only 20 miles from the part of New York state that was becoming
famous as a cradle of the circus at the very time when Hackaliah
Bailey was exhibiting Old Bet. Barnum met Bailey while he was
owner of a retail fruit and confectionery store in Bethel. Bailey
made a lasting impression on Barnum.
In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum on Broadway
in New York City. He exhibited "500,000 natural and artificial
curiosities from every corner of the globe", and kept traffic
moving through the museum with a sign that read, "This way to
the egress" - "egress" was another word for exit, and Barnum's
patrons would have to pay another quarter to reenter the museum!
Barnum introduced the freak show to the circus. What interested
him about freaks was not that they were deformed but that they
were unique. Barnum knew how much people wanted to see the rare
and exotic in their own species as well as others, and on that
he built his circuses.
Barnum was 60 years old when "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling
Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus" made its debut. At the
time, it was the largest circus venture in American history.
"We ought to have a big show," Barnum said. "The public expects
it, and will appreciate it." Appreciate it they did: Barnum
grossed $400,000 in his first year of operation.
The 1850s ushered in the golden age of the circus. By 1852,
about 30 circuses were touring the US. Most had menageries.
The circus was the country's most popular form of entertainment
because its traveling shows went to the people and often gave
them the only entertainment they had all year. Competition among
the various circuses created this golden age, as each circus
tried to outdo the others with a show more spectacular than
circusgoers had ever seen.
The decade of the 1850s also stands as the golden age of the
river, an era when river traveling in general and showboats
in particular were at their height. Charles W. Rogers built
the first circus showboat, called the Floating Palace, for $42,000.
Originally, chimes on the roof heralded the approach of the
boat until J.C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts, invented
the steam calliope. Nixon and Kemp's circus put the calliope
on wheels and used it in their circus parade in 1857. That same
year, Thomas Patent invented "Fairy Floss", otherwise known
as cotton candy, the most popular confection of the circus.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, P.T. Barnum was the biggest
promoter of individual attractions the world had ever known,
but he was primarily an exhibitor of curiosities, human and
otherwise, not a circus man. He mounted a giant show requiring
500 people and horses to transport it from town to town. He
chose William C. Coup, a supreme showman, as manager of this
Together with Dan Castello, who had his own circus, and Barnum's
backing, Coup assembled 10 carloads of trained animals and circus
paraphernalia and shipped them to New York. The great enterprise
of Barnum, Coup and Castello opened in Brooklyn beneath 33 acres
of canvas. The show boasted that it employed more people and
animals than any previously organized in the US or Europe. Over
10,000 people came to see 600 horses and some of Barnum's best
Though Barnum's freaks had big drawing power, it was Coup's
advance publicity, advertising and transportation arrangements
that made the show a success. Coup posted advertising bills
as far as 75 miles away. To make sure all the people who saw
his posters could get to his circus, he arranged for railroads
in New England and New York to run special excursion trains
at reduced fares to the places where the Barnum show pitched
its tents. Attendance was often two or three times the population
of the city played.
were often promoted by means of parades, as seen in
this 1891 engraving (courtesy Circus World Museum).
On 10 May 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads
were connected at Promontory Point, Utah, creating new opportunities
for circuses. The Castello circus was the first to ride the
rails to the West Coast on the new Union Pacific. While technically
a wagon show, it continued to carry enough horses for overland
moves when a performance was miles from the nearest railroad
line. The menagerie animals made the trip inside 10 caged wagons
aboard the train. Baggage wagons on flatcars carried show gear.
The use of rail travel paved the way for America's distinctive
three-ring circuses, because trains could carry many more people,
animals and pieces of equipment, allowing circuses be to larger.
Circuses could also choose which towns to play. Until this point,
a show was limited by how far its baggage stock horses could
walk overnight. Many times this meant having to stop in towns
that gave only limited patronage. Now trains carried circuses
to towns hundreds of miles away, while performers got a good
Though Barnum took credit for it, it was Coup's idea to design
a special circus train. Railroad cars at the time weren't designed
to be loaded and unloaded efficiently, but Coup solved this
problem by building railroad cars designed for the needs of
circuses. So he ordered 65 such cars built to his specifications.
His design would eventually lead to the development of the modern
"piggyback" system of rail truck freight handling.
The circus season of 1872 was the first year that a train carried
a circus completely designed for rail travel. Coup hit on the
idea of loading his train using crossover plates between the
cars. Roustabouts pulled the wagons up a ramp onto the rear
flatcar and pushed them the length of the train. They would
then be chocked into place on their assigned flatcars with wedges
to hold them steady. Until then, roustabouts had to manhandle
wagons over the side of each freight car, a difficult and time-consuming
Also in 1872, Coup and Barnum added a second ring to their show.
Their reasoning was that they could put more people around two
rings than around one. Audiences loved it, as they felt that
they were getting more for their money. Performers hated it,
as they felt that they were in competition with the acts in
the other ring.
Greatest Show on Earth
The ever-growing size of the Barnum circus started people saying
that it was "The Greatest Show on Earth." And Barnum eventually
made that title the copyrighted name of his show - "P.T. Barnum's
Traveling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest
Show On Earth". Eventually, Coup sold out to Barnum. In 1876
Barnum presided over the US centennial as if it were his personal
About 1880, Barnum started to worry that his "Greatest Show
on Earth" might not be the greatest after all. For the first
time, he had a serious challenger, the international Allied
shows, owned by James E. Cooper, James Anthony Bailey and James
L. Hutchinson. It was the circus being talked about. And it
was the first to advertise the use of electricity instead of
gas to illuminate the two rings - all without mishaps.
The managerial genius among the three owners was Bailey. Barnum
offered Hutchinson a free partnership in his show if he'd persuade
Bailey to combine with Barnum, and in 1880 the three reached
an agreement to combine the shows under the firm name of Barnum,
Bailey and Hutchinson. The result was "P.T. Barnum's Greatest
Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British
Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United."
It soon became known as the "Barnum and London Circus".
Bailey was a perfect partner for Barnum. No one could draw attention
to his individual attractions like Barnum and no one could get
the whole show on the road like Bailey. For the first time in
history, they used three rings. The New York Herald called the
three rings a drawback because "the spectator was compelled
to receive more than his money's worth; in other words, that
while his head was turned in one direction he felt it was losing
something good in another."
One of Barnum's biggest successes came in 1882 with his acquisition
of Jumbo. Dubbed "The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose
Like the World Will Never See Again," Jumbo arrived in New York
on Easter Sunday, 1882, in time for the annual opening of The
Greatest Show on Earth at Madison Square Garden. In the first
six weeks, he helped the show gross $336,000.
Jumbo was the greatest circus attraction in American history.
He traveled in a private railroad car which Barnum called "Jumbo's
palace car", a crimson and gold boxcar with huge double doors
in the middle to give Jumbo easy access up a ramp. Twelve feet
tall at the shoulders and weighing six and a half tons, Jumbo
could reach an object 26 feet from the ground with his seven-foot
In 1883, Barnum staged his greatest promotional coup by walking
Jumbo across the Brooklyn Bridge to test the strength of the
new engineering marvel.
Unfortunately, Jumbo met with a disastrous accident in the town
of St. Thomas, Ontario, in the early morning of 15 September
1885, when a speeding freight train killed him while he was
being loaded into his car.
Barnum and Bailey then went their separate ways, but rekindled
their business relationship two years later. Barnum agreed to
give Bailey control of the show and to add his name for the
first time to the actual title of the circus. From then on it
was officially the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.
Following the death of P.T. Barnum in 1891, James A. Bailey
carried the Barnum and Bailey Circus to new heights of popularity.
The Greatest Show on Earth rode the rails on 85 railroad cars,
employed more than 1,000 people, and consisted of five rings
and stages, plus the largest traveling menagerie anywhere.
Circus day at the turn-of-the-century involved the whole community
in a way that the small size of the average circus had not required
previously, and that the sprawling size of towns and cities
hasn't permitted since. In those days, nearly every community
had a convenient open space, large enough to accommodate a circus
and near enough for the circus to unload the train, give a free
street parade through the center of town, and get back in time
to give the matinee on schedule.
There were no movies, radio or television to compete with the
wonders of the circus ring and little traffic congestion or
parking problems to impede those who sought to attend. The lots
were almost always big enough to contain every buggy and the
few automobiles that came. Labor and transportation costs were
low. Railroads found it profitable to bring the circus train
to town. Streetcar lines brought the town to the circus.
The clowns were there, the elephants were there, the jungle
acts were there, the rare and exotic people were there. And
so were the Ringling Brothers.
Ringling Brothers, before their other two brothers Henry
and Gus joined them in running their circus (courtesy
the Ringling Museum).
Five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin - Al, Alf, Charles, John
and Otto Ringling - were inspired to become the circus kings
of the 20th century while they were still boys. Five of the
seven Ringling boys went down to the docks to see the circus
unload from a sidewheel steamboat. According to Al Ringling,
after they had watched the circus unload, his eldest brother
asked "What if we had a show like that?" To his surprise, his
brothers claimed to have been thinking the same thing. Their
first circus was a backyard affair complete with feats of physical
skill and daring, an animal act and a clown.
As the 19th century was coming to a close, the Ringling brothers
began to build a reputation of their own. Beginning their tented
circus in 1884, they soon became known as the Kings of the Circus
World. A sixth brother, Henry Ringling, joined the show in 1886,
while Gus, the seventh brother, joined soon after.
By 1887, the Ringling brothers' show was growing. Its official
title was "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double
Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress
of Trained Animals".
The Ringling brothers' success can be attributed to hard work
and specialization. Alf Ringling did the publicity. Gus arranged
for the advertising. Al picked the acts. Charles produced the
show. Henry was the one who attended each performance. Otto
was the treasurer. John took care of the transportation, and
it was his skillful routing to small or neglected towns, which
permitted their circus to avoid direct clashes with their formidable
During the 1895 season, the Ringling show invaded New England,
long the stronghold of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. At Bailey's
suggestion, the Ringling brothers agreed to divide the US with
him, establishing their headquarters in Chicago, while Barnum's
would be New York. Neither would intrude upon the other's territory.
As time went on, the Ring-lings' show grew bigger. In 1907,
the Ringlings finally purchased their largest competitor - the
Barnum and Bailey Circus - for $410,000, less than the profits
of one good season. For the first time in the Ringlings' history,
all the brothers didn't agree on the acquisition.
Charles Ringling proposed an organization of circus owners to
try to eliminate practices that gave the circus as an institution
a bad reputation. In December 1910, representatives of more
than a dozen circuses agreed not to cover one another's posters,
to remove their advertising matter promptly after show dates,
and to give the public "a square deal".
Just prior to the US entry into WWI, the Ringling Brothers Circus
had more than 1,000 personnel, 335 horses and a menagerie that
included 26 elephants and 16 camels, all traveling aboard 92
railroad cars. The Barnum and Bailey circus was about the same
size. With the US entry into the war, however, circuses suddenly
couldn't get enough help since so many employees joined the
Armed Forces. Patronage of both the Barnum and Bailey and the
Ringling shows fell dramatically. So the Ringlings combined
them in 1919 as the "Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Combined
Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth".
The Greatest Show on Earth was becoming truly legendary, but
none of John Ringling's six brothers lived to see what was perhaps
his greatest business triumph. In 1929, Ringling purchased the
American Circus Corporation for $1.7 million. In one fell swoop,
Ringling had absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes,
Sparks, Hagenbeck-Wallace and John Robinson.
By the time John Ringling died in 1936, Ringling Bros. and Barnum
and Bailey Circus had become an American tradition. John Ringling
North, an executor of his uncle's estate, became president of
the show in 1937, a position he held until 1943 when his cousin,
Robert, became president.
Throughout its history, the circus has always been plagued with
problems. The worst tragedy in circus history occurred during
the afternoon show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey
Circus on 6 July 1944, at Hartford, Connecticut.
The flame-resistant Big Top leaked badly, so for 1944 the Ringling
management substituted an old-fashioned tent waterproofed with
a solution of paraffin and benzene. The coating kept water out,
but the canvas was extremely flammable.
With nearly 7,000 people enjoying the performance, the big tent
suddenly caught fire. As fire spread up the walls and raced
across the top of the tent, the bandmaster, Merle Evans, swung
his band into the "Stars and Stripes Forever" - the circus disaster
tune. The sound of this tune moved all employees into high gear.
The horses, elephants, lions and tigers were quickly led out
of the tent.
When the tent became engulfed in flames, the crowd broke into
a stampede. They could have escaped under the tent flaps almost
anywhere, but in their panic, many tried to leave the way they
had come in, but they now found that way blocked by the animal
chute used to transport the big cats. Fire hadn't spread to
the other end yet and employees tried directing them to that
exit. In the panic, crowds still stampeded to the end on fire.
Three minutes later, the tent poles started collapsing and the
roof caved in. Within six minutes, all the tent had burned,
leaving a pile of smoldering ashes. In all, 168 persons were
trampled or burned to death - at least 80 of them were children.
Another 487 people, including 60 circus employees, received
burns and injuries. Insurance claims came to almost $4 million.
Times, and the public's taste, were changing, and the circus
had problems keeping pace. On 16 July 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
the financially troubled Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey
gave its last performance under the Big Top. John Ringling North
announced, "The tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion,
a thing of the past." The Big Top, North said, was the victim
of TV competition, labor troubles, terrible weather for canvas
tents, traffic problems for audiences trying to get to the circus
and increased freight rates for railroads trying to bring it
to them. Life magazine announced "Big Top Bows Out Forever".
In that same year, the Clyde Beatty Circus, by that time the
only railroad circus other than Ringling, had gone bankrupt.
The decline continued throughout the 1960s. The surviving circuses
were small and, worst of all, had few superstars who could perform
leaping tiger, designed by noted illustrator Charles
Livingston Bull in 1914, is one of the most dramatic
images ever produced for a circus poster (courtesy of
Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus).
Later that year, Irvin Feld would save Ringling Bros. and Barnum
and Bailey from oblivion by masterminding its transition from
tents to arenas. Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel, had made
their mark as pioneers in the rock 'n' roll concert tour business.
Because he was familiar with the new arenas springing up in
cities across the US, Feld suggested the Greatest Show on Earth
become an exclusively indoor presentation. On 3 April 1957,
the new tour was put into effect with Feld in charge of booking
Feld had always wanted to own Ringling Bros. and Barnum and
Bailey and thus have control over all facets of the show, including
production. On 11 November 1967, his dream became reality when
the Feld family purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey
from John Ringling North.
Ever the astute promoter, Feld designed a new two-year tour
system for his circus. He leased baggage cars, in which the
elephants and some other trained animals would ride, from the
railroads. The show's equipment moved in 10 big trailer trucks.
He gave the performers travel allowances to be used in restaurants
and hotels of their choice, and ordered them to get from show
to show in their own cars and trailers. Feld reduced the number
of employees from 1,400 to 300, including about 80 performers,
and cut the break-even point to $125,000. Moving the show indoors
permitted 46 consecutive weeks of performance, from the first
week in January to the third week in November. Utilizing a national
advertising campaign, including television specials, he brought
"The Greatest Show on Earth" back to its rightful place as a
premier American art form, prompting Time magazine to refer
to him as "The Greatest Showman On Earth".
Feld's success spurred the comeback of the American circus.
By the late 1990s, there were 30 circuses in the US, including
the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, the second largest and the
largest still under a tent.
Culhane, John. The American Circus (Henry Holt
and Co., New York, 1990).
Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus
(Facts on File, New York, 1993).
Hoh, LaVahn G. and William H. Rough. Step Right Up!
The Adventure of the Circus in America (Betterway Publications,
Inc.,White Hall, Virginia,1990).
Loxton, Howard. The Golden Age of the Circus (Smithmark
Publishers, New York, 1997).
On the Web
Circus Fans of America (www.circusfans.org)
Circus World Museum (www.circusworldmuseum.com)
Circus Web (www.circusweb.com)
Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (www.ringling.com)
This article originally appeared in our October/November