The Circus in America: 1793 - 1940

The American circus has a unique and often overlooked importance in American history. The first American circuses began shortly after the country was founded, and as the country’s population grew, moved West, went through the Industrial Revolution, and opened its gates to the world, the circus followed. Indeed, in many cases the circus provided people’s first view of new inventions, exotic animals and peoples, and popular entertainments. The history of the circus is in many ways a microcosm of the history of America.

The Circus in America: 1793-1940 surveys the history of the American circus over a 150-year period. It promotes serious scholarly research of the significant role the circus played in the growth of American society and popular culture. Historians trace the origins of the modern circus to late eighteenth century England, but the circus reached its height as a popular art form in nineteenth and twentieth century America. But to date there is no authoritative study, integrated with digital resources, that addresses this uniquely American cultural institution.Project director Lavahn Hoh and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities are proud to present this digital research collection, which has a critical collection of archival, library, and museum resources, as well as essays, maps, timelines, images, and videos that help contextualize and interpret these materials.

The circus was a primary form of entertainment and information for the nineteenth century population, especially outside cities and larger metropolitan areas. By the beginning of the twentieth century there were more than 100 circuses traveling around the country, performing for as many as 12,000 spectators at each show. Our site focuses on six major circuses, chosen for their cultural impact on both other circuses and the entire entertainment industry:Phillip Astley, the father of the modern circus; John Bill Ricketts, the founder of the first American circus; Pepin and Breschard, who took the circus out West; P.T. Barnum, who brought the sideshow into the spotlight; Adam Forepaugh, who brought the Wild West under the big top; and the Ringling Bros., the undisputed kings of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The site contains artifacts from private collections, museums, archives, brought together for the first time for the use of scholars and students of history, popular culture, technology, business, drama, sports, art, and advertising. There are huge gaps and inaccuracies in our knowledge of circus history, in part because the documents and circus artifacts (route books, posters, newspaper stories, journals, and oral histories) have been scattered among many different repositories and part because there have been few systematic efforts to archive, analyze, and correlate these materials. The Circus in America makes it possible for the first time to study this singularly important influence on and reflection of American culture.

So, step right up, children of all ages! Come and witness the amazing sights and sounds, the bizarre and unbelievable feats, the glitter and spectacle of the American circus. See the thrills, the beauty, the excitement and laughter that happen when the circus comes to town.

   Pre-1793 | 1793-1800 | 1801-1824 | 1825-1871 | 1872-1905 | 1906-1940 |
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