Circus History with Phineas

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Q: How did the circus start in America?

A: Before we get into how the circus started in America, we first need to see how it started in Europe. Many attribute the modern circus to a British man by the name of Philip Astley. A natural born equestrian, Astley joined the 15th Light Dragons, a cavalry regiment, in 1759. After the French and Indian War, Astley opened up a school where he taught trick riding to others and put on horse shows. He began incorporating others types of acts, such as clowns, jugglers, and acrobats into his show in between horse displays. He quickly found that this combined performance was a success, and toured throughout Europe. John Bill Ricketts, another British equestrian, followed in Astley’s footsteps, except in America. After immigrating to the United States from Scotland, Ricketts established a riding school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter in 1793, a circus. The idea of a circus pleased Americans, and it became popular very quickly. Guests of Ricketts’ circus included George Washington and John Adams.

As expected, people began creating their own circuses in America hoping to have success stories similar to that of Ricketts. One success story is that of Joshuah Purdy Brown, whose impact on the circus and show business can still be seen today. Brown realized that the venue circuses were performing in at the time were ineffectual and cumbersome. At the time, circuses performed in giant wooden buildings that were constructed and then torn down; they were impractical and tedious to set up. Brown, however, in 1825, held his circus under a canvas tent. The tent was the first of its kind, and it made the circus more portable than ever before.

From here, the next major jump in American circus history occurred in 1841, when Phineas Taylor Barnum opened up his American Museum. The museum was the home to many oddities, illusions, and phenomena, such as the Feejee Mermaid, that kept customers coming back for more. Barnum’s unique style of marketing and showmanship (which will be discussed in a later article) revolutionized the performing industry. In 1871, Barnum created P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus, which toured the country, setting a new gold standard in how American circuses traveled and operated. The circus’ history is extremely rich and has been influenced by a variety of different people and factors, so this article only provides a snapshot of some of the more monumental events. We will discuss some more of these factors in upcoming articles.

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