The Circus in America By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
April 19, 2013
Chances are almost all of us have been to a circus sometime in our life. After all, America’s love affair with the circus has lasted for over 200 years. It shines far above the minstrel show, the medicine show and vaudeville. It glitters with spangles, smells of fresh sawdust and excited animals, tastes like peanuts and popcorn, and sounds like the old time calliope. The circus came to the United States on April 3, 1793 when John Bill Rickets, an English equestrian rider used a ring, added acrobats, a rope walker and a clown to his equestrian act, and called it a circus. Minus the elephant. The elephant didn’t get into the circus until the 1800’s, when Hackaliah Bailey, a farmer from Somers, New York whose brother bought a female African elephant at an auction for $20 and sold it to Bailey for $1,000. As soon as Bailey received the elephant he began exhibiting it for a small fee, and began to make a profit. Unfortunately a ruffian in Maine shot the elephant in 1816, however Bailey had it stuffed, and displayed it on tour for the next four years. As time went by, entrepreneurs put individual wild animals on display and charged admission. Cat acts began in 1833 when Isaac VanAmburgh first stepped into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther; however VanAmburgh’s cruelty to the animals came under attack Much time was spent travelling from place to place. On circus day a clown would come into town a couple of hours before the circus, enticing the townspeople with acrobatics, clowning and snappy jokes. Then the wagons would arrive. The ring was always the heart of the circus. There was no roof over the circus, so if it rained the show couldn’t go on. In 1825 a canvas tent that was easily portable proved the perfect innovation for the circus. P.T. Barnum first introduced the freak show to the circus. What interested him about freaks was not that they were deformed, but that they were unique. Barnum knew how much people wanted to see the rare and exotic in their own species as well as others, and on that he built his circuses. The 1850’s ushered in the golden age of the circus. More than 30 circuses were touring the U.S., and circus was the country’s most popular form of entertainment. The invention of the calliope was added, which was put on wheels, and used in the circus parade in 1857. That same year, Thomas Patent invented “Fairy Floss”, otherwise known as cotton candy, and it became the most popular confection of the circus. By the 1880’s, Barnum and Bailey was the premier circus. One of Barnum’s biggest successes came with the acquisition of Jumbo. In his first six weeks, he helped the show gross 336,000. He was the greatest circus attraction in America. He traveled in a private railroad car, a crimson and gold boxcar with huge double doors in the middle to give Jumbo easy access up a ramp. Twelve feet tall at the shoulders and weighing six and a half tons Jumbo could reach an object 26 feet from the ground. Unfortunately Jumbo met with a disastrous accident in the town of St. Thomas, Ontario on September 15, 1885 when a speeding freight train killed him while he was being loaded into his car. Throughout its history, circuses have always been plagued with problems and tragedy, but have always managed to reinvent itself to a new life. Today there are still a lot of people out there who want to see “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
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