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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth

This post was written by Kathleen Adrian, reference librarian of Ask Joan of Art, before she left the Smithsonian at the beginning of June.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey
“It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two by two, and gentleman and lady, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes and stirrups… and every lady with a lovely complexion and perfectly beautified, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens…”   (Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ch.22)

Huck Finn’s description was shared by many people who regarded the circus as an unmatched social spectacle. Well before the advent of film, radio and television, the circus was the largest entertainment industry in the world, bringing exotic animals, sideshow oddities, thunderous music and death-defying acrobatic tricks to thousands of people across the country.

One of the first circuses in America is believed to have taken place in 1793 in Philadelphia, with George Washington in attendance. Staged by an Englishman named John Bill Ricketts, this circus was mainly an equestrian show featuring bareback riding and horse acrobatics, though it also included a juggler, clown, musicians and even a rope-walker.

By 1825, circuses began using tents, so wagons were needed to haul the equipment. They also needed cages and dens to carry the wild animals. As the shows grew in size, more wagons and horses were added, along with the acquisition of elephants and camels. The desire for bigger and better circuses brought in Phineas T. Barnum, who had already made a name in the world as a concert promoter and operator of museums with both human curiosities and hoaxes. Barnum’s first circus opened on April 10, 1871 in Brooklyn, New York, under three acres of canvas, and grossed more than $400,000 its first season, traveling from one town to another in an endless train. Following the success of Barnum’s circus, other showmen started converting their wagon shows to rail caravans.

P.T. Barnum & General Tom Thumb
The “golden age” of the circus occurred between 1880 and 1920, as the biggest circuses moved from town to town by railroad. Competition was fierce between the rival circuses, ensuring the public extraordinary productions that were constantly being enhanced. A traveling circus, with all of its equipment, animals and performers, represented an enormous financial investment. Show owners couldn’t afford a small crowd turnout, so they did whatever they could to lure the townsfolk to the big top. Posters were a prime promotional tool. Bills were tacked to every available outdoor space by crews that traveled by special railroad car, usually dispatched to a town about two weeks before the show was scheduled to arrive. These full color posters, printed by means of the stone lithograph, made visually flamboyant, hyperbolic claims to the spectacular events soon to unfold under the big top.

The great lengths to which these circuses went to outdo each other were most visible in their dazzling procession through each town, which eventually became as much of an attraction as the circus itself. From the caged animals, elephants, horses, performers and clowns, to the beautiful wagons, floats and instruments, the circus street parades brought people to the show grounds.

Circus Ring, Coney Island
The American circus was consciously defined as a wholesome family event, in large measure the result of P.T. Barnum's savvy marketing strategy. Barnum knew well that success depended on a broad audience, so the circus had to please “children of all ages.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone that didn’t have the desire at some point to run away to the circus. Circus performers personified the romance of the open road, the fierce individualism in living a transient life, and the ability to exhibit their bodies and physical strength as entertainment. Many women found the freedom of circus life appealing, especially when compared to life as a farmer’s wife or office worker. A number of female circus performers were stars in their own right, with hard-earned status as equestriennes, wirewalkers, acrobats.

Circus Performer
Time was not always kind to the circus. With the advent of WWI, thousands of able-bodied men signed up for military service, leaving fewer men to fill jobs on circus lots. After the war, the Spanish flu pandemic resulted in dwindling numbers of people attending the circus. By the time the Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit, the golden age of the circus had come to an end, as circus companies reduced the length of the season, laid off employees, and some circuses closed for good.

Despite history, a changing demand for entertainment and the competition for new audiences, the American circus has not disappeared. Rather it remains a vital aspect of American popular culture. The setting may change, but the show goes on. All the more reason for valuing how the history and legacy of the circus has been preserved by archivists, librarians, curators, historians, fans and private collectors in photographs, ephemera and artifacts.

Images, top to bottom:

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows: The Greatest Wild Animal Display in History, 1924, color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1998.62

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb, ca. 1850, daguerreotype by Samuel Root and Marcus Aurelius Root, National Portrait Gallery, NPG.93.154

[Circus ring, Coney Island. Active no. 13518 : stereo photonegative, ca. 1904-1905.], Underwood and Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, 1895-1921, National Museum of American History, Archives Center, RSN 137

Gifford Beal, Circus Performer, ca. 1930, lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2008.31

--Kathleen Adrian, Research and Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum


  1. You should check out the John & Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota! It's their house, art museum, and a circus theater owned by Florida State University.

  2. I'm currently taking a History and Philosophy of U.S. Museums course through Johns Hopkins and just last week we discussed P.T. Barnum's natural history museums. I already knew quite a bit about Barnum, but I did not know that he bought Charles Wilson Peale's Philadelphia Museum and that he acquired a few other museums over the years (although he lost them to due to financial risks and fires). For those interested in this museums, the following article is available on JStor.

    Betts, John Rickards, “P. T. Barnum and the Popularization of Natural History,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 3 (June - September 1959), pp. 353-368.

    Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern

  3. Anonymous ~ Yes! I've visited the Ringling Museum in Sarasota a number of times. It is an amazing collection and I'm always inspired and excited when I visit. One day, I'd also like to see the library and research center at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which was the original winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers.

  4. Samantha ~ thank you for posting about this article! It looks really interesting and I'll definitely check it out.