Under the Big Top: the Circus in America

American Circus History
For thousands of years, jugglers, acrobats, and animal acts had thrilled audiences across Asia, Africa, and Europe. So the circus was not invented by Americans, but we did put our unique spin on an ancient entertainment.


The Early Date
Herbert Hoover Museum gallery featuring The Circus in America.
In the 1770s, Colonial America was a fairly grim place to live. The few public amusements available were religious meetings, political speeches, and hangings! But after an English-style riding school gained acceptance in Philadelphia in 1782, wagon troupes of horsemen and performers appeared in theatres and barns. By 1815, the first large, round tent was pitched in a farm field.  
The Golden Age of the Circus

Famous showman P.T. Barnum had captivated the public in the 1870s with his American Museum and sideshows in New York City. Out West, rodeos and Western lore formed the basis for Buffalo Bill's Wild West productions. The American circus combined these Eastern and Western versions of arena entertainment.

To improve profits, circus troupes tried to pack more people into the tents but the technical aspects of tent-making could only elongate the space. Enter the three-ring circus in 1881! This gloriously profitable expansion brought grand spectacles to the American audience, especially when tents were expanded to five rings.

P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey merged operations in the 1880s to create "Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth!" After Barnum died in 1891, Bailey carried on alone for fifteen years.

The rising stars of the circus world were five performing brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringling Brothers eventually bought the Forepaugh-Sells Circus plus Barnum & Bailey's and by 1919, christened their company with the magic name, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on EArth. This entourage swept the country over the next three decades with lavish circus productions, never seen before or since!

The Circus Today
By the mid-20th century, circus troupes faced competition from radio, movies, television, and 20th century technology. John Ringling North announced in 1956 that "the tented circus is a thing of the past" and moved the Ringling circus indoors into huge auditoriums. Even so, by the 1970s new versions of the traditional circus were introduced, and there is a renewed interest in both indoor and outdoor tent shows.
Fun Facts
  • The word 'circus' (from the Latin word for circle) was popularized in ancient Rome at The Circus Maximus. The Roman Colosseum became the world's greatest amphitheater, seating 50,000 to watch chariot racing, gladiators, wild animals, and battle re-creations.
  • In the Middle Ages, country fairs featured performers called mountebanks ("those who jump onto the bank"). The 'bank' was a makeshift stage of boards laid across barrels. Money lenders who used similar props to conduct transactions later became known as bankers!
  • During an eight-month season, historic circuses on rail would travel 15,000 miles, crisscross 30 states, and perform in over 150 towns.
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey trains continue to reach about 115 towns each year. Their trains stretch a mile long and are composed of 57 cars, each 90 feet long.
  • The oldest collegiate circus in the country is at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Gamma Phi Circus (about 90 performers) is part of the School of Kinesiology and Recreation.
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