Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Traditional, International, American Circus


Walker Big Apple Circus, 1994. Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992-1999 (NMAH AC 1427). Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission.

As an intern in the Archives Center of NMAH, I spend much of my time familiarizing myself with specific collections. My main project this semester has been looking at the Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, which does make it easy for me to introduce the collection, since the title makes its contents fairly clear. Originally, I was planning on writing this post about a single item, and when I came across the photograph above, I couldn’t help but find it a bit amusing. There are many beautiful, touching, and unique photos in this collection, and in comparison to many of these, this photo appears at first to be rather unremarkable. It took me a bit of time to understand why I found it so funny, but then I realized that it was the perfect image to represent the American circus. I say this because the entire time that I was perusing the collection, there was one paradox which popped out at me from nearly every page, and I can only describe it as this: the traditional, international, American circus.

Walker Bros. Circus, 1995. Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427).
Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission.
Throughout the ephemera of the collection, the words “American” and “tradition” appear more times than I can count. One Carson & Barnes Circus newsletter states that the goal of its show is to “keep alive the spirit and the traditions that are a part of American History and the American Scene.” An article written about Circus Vargas is titled “Traditions and the American Circus; Elements of Circus Vargas.” One souvenir program from the Clyde Beatty – Cole Bros. Circus proclaims that “the tradition of the tented circus… is indeed an American treasure.” It is clear from the constant repetition of the word “tradition” in these excerpts that these circuses profited from a certain cultural nostalgia. Programs from circuses such as the Big Apple Circus and Circus Vargas even provide brief history lessons to highlight the role of the circus in American history, telling it as though it were the story of an individual, such as an immigrant striving towards that famous “American dream.” Yet despite many of these labels, the animals, the performers, and in some cases even the tent – “…brand new…Big Top freshly imported from Italy!”–were advertised for their exoticism.

Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, 1995. Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427). Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission.
According to one Big Apple Circus program, the circus itself started as an arena for equestrian sports. Be that as it may, it is the exotic animals which became the major tools for drawing a crowd. The Rogala collection contains many photographs of these lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), and it’s clear from the collected papers that each circus wanted to emphasize their “Exotic Animal Menagerie.” Among the ephemera in the collection are the programs from six out of the eleven circuses she traveled with – as well as one from a circus that she didn’t travel with – and a crucial part of many of these programs is a listing of the animals, meant undoubtedly to amaze and overwhelm readers: “…approximately 20 [elephants], both Indian and African… approximately 100 exotic and domestic animals, including giraffe, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, camels, liger, tigers, lions, llamas, and many types of equine.” For this industry, it seems to have been vital to make grand claims about their “rather large variety of animals from various parts of the globe” in order to compete with other shows. Finally, most circuses include exciting images of animals in their programs and on their trailers – not necessarily corresponding to the animals in their actual cast. All this is to advertise the circus as a place to view all types of animals that would never ordinarily be seen in the U.S. – quite  the opposite from our “slice of pure Americana.”

Selection of programs from six circuses (listed clockwise from top-left corner: Culpepper & Merriweather Great Combined Circus Official Program and Souvenir Magazine, Folder 7; Circus Vargas Program of Acts, The 29th Anniversary Edition, Folder 4; Kelly Miller Circus, Folder 9; Clyde Beatty – Cole Bros. Circus Program and Magazine, Folder 6; Carson & Barnes Circus 1993 Official Routebook, Folder 2; Big Apple Circus Carnevale in Venice, 1993-94 Lincoln Center & Tour, Folder 1. All Box 8, Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427).

Carson & Barnes Circus 1993 Official Routebook,
Folder 2, Box 8, Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427).
Just as circus programs include lists of their exotic animals, many also catalogue their foreign performers. Circus Vargas even went so far as to have an entire sheet devoted to their “International Cast,” which includes human performers from Spain, Argentina, Bulgaria, Germany, Kenya, England, and the Philippines, as well as a troupe of dogs from Denmark. Even domestic animals, it seems, needed some international flair. These international casts were also displayed in a way which made them appear even more exotic, through fanciful names, acts, and costumes. Big Apple Circus’s “Carneval in Venice” – from which the top photo is taken – is set in a fanciful version of an entirely different place on the globe. Similarly, photos in programs from Carson & Barnes Circus show performers paying tribute to a different time with their colorful “Aztec” costumes. In order to quench this thirst for variety, some of these circus acts portrayed cultures that were not present in the cast of performers. This certainly appears to be the case in the photo below, where several women are dressed in imaginative Asian-inspired costumes, even donning identical black wigs.

Carson & Barnes Circus, 1995. Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427).
Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission.
The exoticism of the circus seems like a contradiction to its place in American tradition, but I think that nothing explains it better than this excerpt from one Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. program: “Perhaps no tradition reflects the cultural quiltwork of our nation as does the American circus.” The circuses in this collection take a variety of different nationalities, cultures, and traditions, put them all under one big top – typically in colors of red, white, and blue – and call it American. It makes me think of that old debate as to whether the U.S. is more of a melting pot or more of a salad bowl, with the former arguing that all cultures mix until we can no longer see the differences, and the latter arguing that the cultures may be next to each other but they remain distinct and separate. Since this post is scheduled to go online on National Mulligan Day – yes, I chose the day for a reason–we might also think of the circus as being a reflection of the U.S.– a stew made from various unique odds and ends. This stew retains its individual bites of flavor, but it is the broth which brings together these numerous and varied elements to define it as a stew.

Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus, 1998. Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992–1999 (NMAH AC 1427). Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission.
For more information on the Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and papers, or – even better – to view the collection yourself, please visit our website. There you will find the contact information to set up an appointment to view items from this or other collections!

All quotes taken from box 8 of the collection (ephemera), various folders, the Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, 1992-1999, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Kira Leinwand
Intern, Fall 2019
Archives Center
National Museum of American History

No comments:

Post a Comment