Golden Age of the Circus
By: John Shepler
Imagine yourself taken back in time. It's the late 1800's and you're just ten years old and living in one of the small towns in the midwestern USA. The most exciting thing in your life comes once a year. No, it's not Christmas, wonderful and magical as that morning is. This is something that gets your heart pounding with anticipation as you race down to the main street where all the commotion is going on. There is music, the sweet whistles of the steam calliope singing to a rhythm that makes your heart beat even faster. Down the street come huge wagons, painted in bright colors. There are strange animals. A gigantic trumpeting elephant, a growling lion, beautiful parading horses. Yes, this is the one day of the year as exciting as no other. It is the day the circus comes to town.
The circus has been around since the time of the Romans, who held their Circus Maximus in open-air arenas. They had chariot races, acrobatics, wrestling, horsemanship and wild beasts. After the fall of Rome, wandering troupes of performers and clowns helped keep the spirit of the circus alive until the late 1700's, when the modern circus began to develop with exhibitions of horsemanship. Phillip Astley, a former cavalryman was said to have started the tradition of the performance with a large ring, beginning in London in 1768. In 1793, John William Ricketts brought such a show to Philadelphia and set up a permanent one ring circus. It is said that even President George Washington would come to enjoy the shows.
The American frontier and the circus were made for each other. This was a time before radio, television or even the movies. The major cities supported theater and opera, but professional entertainment was a rare treat for the people who lived on farms and in the small towns that dotted a country that was still being settled. It was a situation that was ripe for the golden age of the circus. Enter Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers, and the stage, as they say, is set.
Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum had a natural gift for showmanship. He's been called "an all-American Huckster" for his ability to stage extravaganzas that were convincing as "the greatest shows on earth." Barnum started his career selling tickets and performing as a clown in a small circus. He expanded his act with sideshow attractions that included faked mermaids and bearded ladies. Barnum himself was so likable that people who fell for his bizarre setups loved him anyway. Once he promoted a "Man-Eating Chicken" that turned out to be nothing more than a man chewing on a drumstick. "Every crowd has a silver lining," quipped Barnum.
P.T. Barnum founded his Grand and Traveling Circus, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus in 1870. It was so successful, it grossed $400,000 in its first year. James Anthony McGinness, a. k. a. James A. Bailey, formed a partnership with Barnum in the 1880's. Together they fielded Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth," with more people, horses, elephants and larger tents than other circuses.
Their competition came from five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin known as the Ringlings. As youngsters, they caught the circus fever when their father, August Rungeling, a harnessmaker in McGregor, Iowa took them to see a circus that traveled by riverboat. Soon the boys were putting on shows in the family barn and venturing out on the road with a vaudeville show. By 1890, Al, Otto, Charles, John and Alf, plus two more brothers, Henry and Gus, had changed their name to Ringling and had graduated from horse-drawn wagons to railroad cars to move what they called "the world's greatest show."
Thanks partly to the influence of the Ringlings, Wisconsin became known as "The Mother of Circuses." Over 100 traveling tent shows wintered in the state, more than any other. The small town of Delavan, Wisconsin became the "19th Century Circus Capital of the Nation." It was home to 26 different circus companies, including the Mabie Brothers U. S. Olympic Circus, the largest in 1847. Even an original P.T. Barnum Circus was organized there in 1871, by William C. Coup and Dan Castello, who managed the circus that Barnum promoted.
Barnum passed on in 1891, followed by Bailey in 1906. By then the Ringlings had begun acquiring some of Bailey's circus properties. On July 8, 1907, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was bought by the Ringling Brothers but kept as a separate circus until 1919. When merged, the "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth" had 1,200 employees and used 100 double-length railroad cars to transport the show. It was the pinnacle of circus' golden age, reached just before the introduction of radio broadcasting in 1920 which ushered in the twilight of the traveling circus.
Today, you can still see the circus perform, as smaller shows come to your town. You can visit the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin to see shows, circus memorabilia, and 200 colorful circus wagons, which also parade through the streets of Milwaukee every year. By the way, did you know that the expression "making the nut" that is often used by business owners actually originated with the circus? The nut was the daily cost of operating the show. Local authorities would allegedly remove a nut from the wheel of the circus office wagon and hold it until they were convinced that all debts were paid in that town. Only then would they return the nut, allowing the show to move on to its next venue.
Books of Interest:
American Circus Posters in Full Color edited by Charles Philip Fox. These impressive 48 posters are faithful reproductions of the originals in full color on coated stock and printed in an extra large format to display all the fine detail created by the artists. Circus history comes alive with acrobats, elephants, tigers, lions, parades, tents, trains and more. These rare posters date from the 1880s to the 1940s and were often found in store windows and pasted on sheds, barns, buildings, walls and fences.
'O', Cirque Du Soleil at the Bellagio by Veronique Vial. From the official photographer for Cirque du Soleil comes this collections of photos that captures the vivid color, special effects, costume and set designs, and performances that are the hallmark of Cirque's new Vegas venue at the Bellagio.
Also visit these related sites:
Circus Lore - Some background information about circus life, superstitions and the terms used by circus people.
Circus World Museum - Located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, this museum is an historical and educational facility that preserves 200 circus wagons. Exhibits are open year round, and circus history comes to life each summer.
Help an Elephant Blog - Focused on helping elephants worldwide, this blog is a must-read for anyone interested in the plight of these gentle giants and helping them get a better life.
I Want a Baby Elephant For Christmas - A parody of the famous hippopotamus song with a message for elephant lovers.
Help Rescue Elephants - In Defense of Animals, IDA, is proactively working to rescue elephants in need of help and get them to a sanctuary where they will be well cared for and have the companionship of other elephants. Will you help in this cause by lending your voice?
Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: September 6, 1999 as part of A Positive Light