Skip to Main Content

Home Explore Careers

Circus Performers

History

The first circus in the United States was established by John Bill Ricketts in Philadelphia in 1793. Ricketts' circus featured equestrian acts, as well as a tightrope walker, a clown, and an acrobatic act. Performances were given inside a ring, which was surrounded by a low fence. Ricketts' troupe toured through most of the northeastern United States until 1800, when Ricketts went to England. By then, the tradition of the circus parade had already been established by a competing circus organized by Philip Lailson. Toward the middle of the 19th century, colorful circus wagons were also included in circus parades. Other traveling circuses toured the United States, although they were not formally called circuses until 1824. These early circuses usually featured equestrian showmanship, and their proprietors were also featured performers.

A new type of circus originated in 1825, when J. Purdy Brown introduced the "big top." Instead of constructing a wooden building in which to perform, Brown erected a large tent or pavilion. The big top could be set up and taken down more easily and moved from location to location every day. In this way, a circus could reach a wider audience. In the 1830s, circuses also added menageries, which featured wild and exotic animals; soon, performers risked their lives by going into the cages of the most ferocious animals.

Circuses grew larger and more varied through the 19th century. More and more circuses were being run by people who did not perform. Noted proprietors in the mid-19th century were Aaron Turner, Rufus Welch, James Raymond, and Gilbert Spalding. Some performers became well-known figures for their acts, such as John Glenroy, who could turn a backward somersault while riding bareback. Traveling circuses usually spent their winters on the East Coast. This meant that as they traveled they often reached no further than the Midwestern territories before being forced to turn back for the winter. In 1847, the Mabie Brothers circus established its winter headquarters in Delavan, Wisconsin. Many other circuses followed this idea, and over the years more than 100 circuses have been founded or have wintered in Wisconsin.

Perhaps the most famous of all circus proprietors entered the scene in 1871. Phineas Taylor Barnum, known as P. T. Barnum, was born in 1810 in Connecticut. For most of his career, Barnum was a showman, featuring acts such as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, the "Feejee Mermaid" (which was, in fact, the upper half of a monkey that had been attached to the lower half of a fish), the famous midget Tom Thumb, and others. Barnum, known for the slogan "There's a sucker born every minute," was famous for his elaborate publicity campaigns. From 1848 to 1868, Barnum ran the American Museum in New York City, which specialized in curiosities, wild animals, and "freaks" and was one of the most popular attractions in the country, selling over 40 million tickets.

In 1870, Barnum was approached by circus proprietors William C. Coup and Dan Castello, and the three formed a partnership, renaming the circus the P. T. Barnum Circus. In 1872, Barnum suggested that the circus travel by train, stopping only at the bigger cities, where the audiences were largest. In addition to the big top, Barnum's circus featured a sideshow and museum and was advertised heavily before every performance. By the end of the 1870s, there were 25 traveling circuses, the largest traveling by train; by 1905, more than 100 circuses toured the United States. The circus had become the most popular form of entertainment.

A large circus could fill 60 railroad cars and had big top tents more than 500 feet long, capable of seating as many as 10,000 people. Until 1872, circuses still featured a single performance area, or ring; two-ring circuses appeared in the 1870s, and the three-ring circus appeared in 1882. Performances grew more and more spectacular, with the flying trapeze, aerial gymnastics, human cannonball acts, and other death-defying feats. In 1891, wild animal acts moved under the big top, presented by Miss Carlotta and Colonel Boone of the Adam Forepaugh Circus.

James A. Bailey was another renowned circus owner. In 1880, the first live birth of an elephant in captivity occurred at Bailey's Great London Circus, and the baby elephant became a huge attraction. Bailey and P. T. Barnum soon became partners. They brought over an African elephant named "Jumbo," which was billed as the largest animal on Earth and became the biggest circus attraction of the day. Another elephant, the so-called white elephant, was so widely publicized that the term has entered our vocabulary.

The five Ringling Brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin, organized their first circus in 1884. By 1890, their circus had grown large enough to become a railroad show, and by the end of the century, the Ringling Brothers' Circus was one of the largest in the United States. In 1888, P. T. Barnum took the Barnum & Bailey Circus and its Greatest Show on Earth to England, where people went as much to see P. T. Barnum himself as they did to see the circus.

After Barnum's death in 1891, and Bailey's death in 1903, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907. For the next 10 years, the two circuses operated separately. But in 1919, the shows were merged into the most well-known circus of all, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which featured a wide array of performances, from bareback riding to the flying trapeze to feats of strength, and included the famous Flying Wallendas. The Wallenda Family is still performing today; in 2013, Nik Wallenda, a seventh-generation member of the famous family, completed a daring tightrope walk (sans safety harness) that took him a quarter mile over the Little Colorado River Gorge in northeastern Arizona.

While the largest circuses traveled by railroad, there were many smaller circuses still performing in the smaller cities and towns. The development of the automobile and a paved road system soon allowed these circuses to travel more quickly and to more places than ever before, and by the 1920s, the first successful truck circuses were traveling the country. By the 1950s, most circuses, especially the tented circuses such as the Clyde Beatty Circus, traveled by truck. Others, including the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, no longer used a tent at all, but performed instead inside the largest arenas and auditoriums.

Modern circuses are more varied than ever before. Circus performers often become famous celebrities, such as Dolly Jacobs, who amazed audiences by performing somersaults on the Roman Rings; Miguel Vasquez, the originator of the quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze; and Gunther Gebel-Williams, whose world-famous animal act included tigers, leopards, elephants, and horses.

In the 1980s, Cirque du Soleil of Canada created a new type of circus, featuring elaborately choreographed dance, music, lighting, and costumes to augment its stage performances. Vaudeville, sideshows, and burlesque have also seen a revival, with Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York, emerging as one of the centers.

Related Professions