||Issue Date: 11 / 2017
Three Ring Circus
Jack Trammel, Ph.D.
Millennials may have grown up and never attended the circus in person. In fact, circuses have been closing down at an alarming rate. Just this year (2017), the iconic Ringling Brothers Circus announced that it was shutting down permanently after a series of final performances. Why are circuses going away? Why were they important to begin with? The evolution and the decline of the circus can tell us much about our history.
Circuses come in a variety of shapes and forms, and in the general sense can include variations such as menageries, freak shows, side shows, exhibitions, festivals, and other sensational displays of human, animal, and/or natural peculiarities. According to circus scholar Dr. Huey, “It is widely accepted that the first modern circus was staged by Philip Astley (1742-1814) on the outskirts of London in 1768.” They have their genesis in the earliest human celebrations of seasonal changes, harvests, or martial victories.
The Roman chariot raceway was called the circus maximus, and is often considered the first mass entertainment spectacle. Medieval festivals maintained the tradition with contests of arms, jugglers and acrobats, and other attractions. Interestingly, some psychologists and philosophers believe that the human brain is wired to be stimulated by differences, and circuses have always pandered to that part of the brain.
In America, the circus came when European settlers came. President George Washington attended the Ricketts’ circus in the early Republic period (1794), but even before that it was common around the colonies for trappers to bring wild bears to be spectacles, for traders to exhibit exotic animals from other parts of the globe which were an amazement, and human oddities to be displayed and attract public attention. Of course, there was usually a charge and some kind of money-making element involved. It was particularly common to see horse shows and exhibitions of equestrian marvels. Something about the circus and its entertainment cousins fascinated people in pre-Internet times.
The circus expanded rapidly and grew in popularity in the Antebellum years leading up to the Civil War. Celebrated early acts included: the “Mammoth Exhibition” by Walter Van Amburgh; famous clown Dan Rice (whose wife dazzled audiences with her equestrian skills); J.W. Bancker's New York Circus (1824); and Spalding & Rogers with their “Floating Palace” (1854). There were many, many others.
Perhaps the single most famous circus entrepreneur was P.T. Barnum, although he initially seemed to be more of a “huckster” than a future circus baron. Barnum opened “Barnum’s American Museum” in 1841, which featured entertainers, gadgets, oddities, and other attractions. They included visiting performers like Jenny Lind, the so-called “Swedish Nightingale.” The museum burned in 1865, and it wasn’t until 1871 that, with the help of two other partners, he launched the circus that would quickly make him so famous.
The phenomenal growth of the circus before and then after the Civil War coincided with much larger trends associated with “modernism:” urbanization, industrialization, steam transportation, the invention of the telegraph and telephone, the creation of a more formalized postal system, and many other new devices and technologies (including tent poles!). The circus quickly took advantage of the railroads, and even into present times the colorful and specialized circus train is an American cultural icon. The circus also traveled by steam boat into the far reaches of the American frontier, and later by truck caravan.
The Civil War did not dampen enthusiasm for the circus, even though some Northern troupes were caught in the South “behind enemy lines” and had fascinating adventures trying to return home. Soldiers on leave in Washington D.C. were often seeking entertainment, and usually found horse racing and circus acts near the top of the entertainment list. Abraham Lincoln had attended his first circus in 1833 back in Springfield, Illinois, and Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had a specific tax on circuses.
After the war, the circus business boomed. Most traveled by train; their arrival in town usually was the occasion for a grand parade down the main street. The most famous circus remains Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, which was formed in 1881 and 1919 mergers, and took Barnum’s three ring invention to new heights and venues around the globe. In 1944, the tent at a RBBB show in Hartford caught fire and took the lives of 160 people and injured hundreds more. After the war, television began to erode circus attendance, and in 1956 “big top” performances ended and the circus moved to inside venues.
So… What has become of the circus? Why is it apparently dying as a cultural phenomenon? In 1976, C.P. Fox who directed the Circus World Museum declared, “No childhood is complete without a visit to the circus.” In 2017, many children will grow up in the U.S. and not see a circus in the classic sense. Things have changed quite a bit.
Part of the demise of the circus ironically has to do with the very factors that brought about its early popularity—industrialization, urbanization, and technology. In 1850, a young boy or girl might only see a polar bear once in a lifetime when the circus came to town; in 2017 he or she can see one at practically every metropolitan zoo whenever they want to. In 1850, the only way to see amazing physical feats was the circus; in 2017 the Internet is filled with “viral” videos of amazing human feats. Another factor has to do with the general trend toward diversity acceptance; it feels more uncomfortable to many people to single out circus performers and “freaks” in a time where the “norm” is much broader; it seems potentially exploitive. Still another concern is care for the animal members of circus acts.
For many reasons, the circus appears to be fading away. But the circus’s impact on the American experience is profound, and is not likely to be forgotten. The circus and its entertainment cousins are cultural icons. It may be considered part of our insatiable American curiosity and drive to understand or experience the unknown.
If you’d like to know more, here is where to do more research on your own:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jan/1/when-the-circus-was-big-time/ (another article by the author)
Jack Trammell is an Associate Professor at Randolph-Macon College, and an active
researcher with CPRI in central Virginia. He can be reached at