American Circus and Industrialization in the United States

For National History Day at school, Em chose to do a report on the development of circus in the USA. Here is her super informative and totally fascinating research!

Before the Railroads
In 1792, John Bill Ricketts arrived in Philadelphia from London and opened a riding school with the intention of opening a circus. When the circus opened on April 3, 1793, he released an ad reading “Mr. Ricketts lately from London respectfully acquaints the public that he has erected at considerable expense a circus, situated at the corner of Market and Twelfth Streets where he proposes instructing Ladies and Gentlemen in the elegant accomplishments of riding. -The Circus will be opened on Thursday Next, the 25th October 1792” (Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser).
For several years after, circuses diminished due to the difficulty of finding places to stage performances. It took 7 years for circuses started to reappear. John Durang and Lewis DeGraff opened a building in Philadelphia on July 28, 1800. Several other circuses soon followed, none of which compared to that of Ricketts’.
“In 1807, French native Jean Baptiste Casmiere Breschard and Victor Pepin of Albany, New York, came into prominence giving life to the circus after the departure of Ricketts. Pepin and Breschard petitioned the Boston Town Council in 1807 to construct an arena but were turned down because the local clergy considered a circus ‘too frivolous for these sober times… [referring] to the sudden enforcement of the British Orders in Council of 1806 and 1807 as well as Napoleon’s edicts in connection with the Continental System” (Hoh, The Circus in America).
This was a minor setback as circuses continued growing along with the United States. By 1814 circuses made it past the Appalachian Mountains, using wagons for transportation. Concurrently, the Mississippi River let circuses expand from the north to the south. With the Erie Canal completion in 1825, circuses were traveling to both sides of the country.

Circus Day


Photo by Michael Maslan, Chicago, Illinois. 1904.

Circus Day was everyone’s favorite day of the year. All businesses and schools were closed for the day. People would flood the streets to greet the circus as it rolled into town. “The mammoth circus audience was also part of the spectacle, as thousands of ‘strangers’ from around a county streamed into town. Big cities overflowed. Provincial communities became temporary cities, complete with anonymous, pushing crowds” (Davis, The Circus Age).

The Circus Tent
“In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown … revolutionized the circus business and other traveling shows. He held his performances under a large, portable canvas tent. This innovation allowed shows to move between cities quickly and easily, go anywhere, stay as long or short as they desired, and perform rain or shine. With this flexibility, Brown’s show could perform and have an income six days per week.” (Hoh, The Circus in America)


Printed by the Stobridge Lithographing Company, Cincinnati. 1913.

By the 1830s, the canvas tent was the main performance place for circuses. However, the circuses needed to have wagons and horses to carry the tent and people to set it up. “The tent added to the proprietor’s daily expense, and changed the relationship between himself and his employees. Instead of erecting costly arenas he now had the cost of wagons to carry his property, of horses to pull the wagons and of teamsters to drive them. The performers and musicians, theretofore on their own as to food and lodging, now traveled constantly with the company” (Thayer, Annals of The American Circus 1793-1829).
Circus tents caused issues of promoting shows. “Advertising materials had to provoke excitement and anticipation of seeing a show that was around for one day only. The printed bills that were used in the 18th, 19th and 20th century had to give the populace the necessary information to catch their attention; namely, title, date, and featured acts.” (Dahlinger, The American Circus Tent)

The “Golden Age”
The start of 1872 marked the beginning of the “Golden Age” of American circus. Smaller circus companies joined together to create bigger companies. This was made possible because the railroads allowed long trains of cars to travel long distances. Additionally, in 1881, three ring circuses were created to accommodate the number of acts the shows had.
Circuses continued to grow throughout the “Golden Age” as railroads allowed the circuses to travel farther and for more people to attend the performances. In 1911 circuses traveling on railroads was at an all-time high. Thirty-two shows were simultaneously traveling around the country.

Traveling on the Rails
February 28, 1827 marked the beginning of a new era. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. railway chartered for commercial transport of passengers and freight. “The railroad became the ideal medium for the circus in a frontier society with scattershot settlement patterns on its periphery. Railroad companies gave the largest American circuses substantial discounts, which enabled them to transport thousands of people, animals, and supplies with more efficiency and speed than any other kind of transportation.”  (Hoh, The Circus in America)
In 1832 Charles Bacon and Edward Derious started using rail lines to transport their circus around Georgia. This made transporting the circus tents easier and faster. As the years went by, more circuses used railroads for transportation. In 1853, the Railroad Circus & Crystal Amphitheatre became the first show to tour an entire season by rail. Perhaps the greatest advance in circus history came in 1905 when Barnum & Bailey Circus made the first transcontinental tour.

Publicizing to the Community


Bill Stand on the Rue de Louvre, Paris. 1901-1902.

        The one-day shows required new publicity. Barnum & Bailey Circus introduced a new model. “The first car … served as a trouble-shooter. The advance men riding there made certain that competing shows … did not steal a previously arranged date, or sabotage earlier transportation contracts made soon after circus managers had determined the route for the upcoming season. The second car focused primarily on posting the bills and arranging newspaper publicity for the show … The third and fourth cars made certain that the posters remained visible, finalized outstanding contracts and provisions, as well as generating publicity within a fifty-mile periphery of the show site. Car number four publicized the upcoming production along the rural periphery, even so the most isolated audiences felt the circus’s reach … car number four travelled all of the railroad routes in a fifty-mile circumference around the circus stop. The bill poster on this car covered this area with bills advertising special train schedules and excursion rates.” (Stirton, American Circus Posters) Finally, the day before the show, ten men, the flying squadron, would set up the circus tent.

Traditions Still Around Today
The circus tent is the main staple still around today. Almost all circuses still perform in the same style circus tents the were around many years before. Today, circuses travel in trucks, the modern-day train. This way of travelling is even faster than trains, but still has all the room that the circuses need to transport their circuses.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade brings back Circus Day parades. They were originally a “’tremendous pageant of … elephants, bears, camels, monkeys, clowns, brass bands … and everything that makes a real Circus Parade so dear to everyone.’” (Davis, The Circus Americanized)
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is the circus that has stayed the truest to the old-style circus. This circus has kept the tradition of circus animals alive, but in March of 2015, the circus released a statement that all of their animal acts will be gone by 2018. The old style of circus is slowly fading out as a new, more modern circus style is coming into existence based more on technology.

Circuses have evolved over the years along with the United States. They have remained popular over this time as they continue to adapt to the times and the technology in the United States. Circuses continue to explore ideas and technologies to keep audiences engaged and coming back.
However, circuses continue to keep a personal touch and develop shows that many different audience members relate to. Throughout their history, even people in the most rural areas have been able to encounter circuses due to advances in transportation.
The exchange between the circuses and the railroad companies has allowed both to prosper. Circuses gave the railroads business and advertising. The railroads gave circuses quick and efficient transportation as well as a way for Americans in rural areas to experience the circus.


Here is Em’s bibliography, if you’re inspired and would like to find out more for yourself!

Primary Sources

Barnum, P. T., and James W. Cook. The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader: Nothing Else like It in the Universe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Barnum, P. T. Struggles and Triumphs; Or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Buffalo, NY: Courier Company, 1884.

“A Cesar Among Showmen; James A. Bailey, The Partner and Successor Of Barnum. He Is the Creator of The Modern Circus — His Tremendous Energy And Working Ability — How He Became What He Is.” A Cesar Among Showmen. April 19, 1891. Accessed January 26, 2016.

“Family Circus: Nicole Feld Emerges As The Third-Generation Leader Of Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey.” Interview. Transcript. March 19, 2013.

“PT Barnum, The Shakespeare of Advertising.” PT Barnum, The Shakespeare of Advertising. Accessed January 26, 2016.

Secondary Sources

Apps, Jerold W. Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005.

“The Barnum Museum-Bridgeport, Connecticut.” The Barnum Museum-Bridgeport, Connecticut. Accessed December 10, 2015.

Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America. Performed by Janet M. Davis. 2005.

Benton, Joel. A Unique Story of a Marvellous Career: Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum. Philadelphia: Edgewood Pub., 1891.

“The Circus in America.” The Circus in America. 2004. Accessed January 26, 2016.

Conover, Richard E. The Affairs of James A. Bailey; New Revelations on the Career of the World’s Most Successful Showman. Xenia, OH, 1957.

Dahlinger, Fred, Jr. “The American Circus Tent.” In The American Circus, edited by Susan Weber, Kenneth L. Ames, and Matthew Wittmann, 201-31.

Davis, Janet M. The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Davis, Janet M. “The Circus Americanized.” In The American Circus, edited by Susan Weber, Kenneth L. Ames, and Matthew Wittmann, 23-53. Bard Graduate Center, 2012.

Durant, John, and Alice K. Rand. Durant. Pictorial History of the American Circus. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1957.

“Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” History and Photos. Accessed January 26, 2016.

Stirton, Paul. “American Circus Posters.” In The American Circus, edited by Susan Weber, Kenneth L. Ames, and Matthew Whittmann, 107-35.

Thayer, Stuart. Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1829. Ann Arbor, MI: Thayer, 1976.

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