Circus in America TimeLine

Pre 1793

The modern circus can be traced back to Philip Astley (1742-1814), a British sergeant major and trick rider who established a riding school near Westminster Bridge in 1768. After his discharge from the military, Astley taught riding in the mornings and gave performances demonstrating his riding skills in the afternoon. He rode in a circular arena to give his audiences a good view. He experimented with the size of the ring, but found that if he galloped in a forty-two-foot-diameter circle while standing on the back of a horse, centrifugal and centripetal forces helped him to keep his balance and kept the performers in sight at all times. In 1770, he hired a clown (“Mr. Merryman”), musicians and other performers for his establishment. The addition of these performers marks this as the commonly agreed-upon birth of the modern circus. Astley called the structure where he performed an “amphitheatre” or “riding school.” Charles Hughes, a former employee and now rival horseman, first used the term “circus” to describe his competing production when he opened the “Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy” in 1782. The term describes an enclosed space for displaying horsemanship and a round circular space, but Hughes may have hoped to associate his show the with the legendary spectacles of ancient Rome’s Circus Maximus.

In 1772, Astley traveled to France and presented his riding skills to King Louis XV at Fontainebleau. Ten years later, Astley returned to Paris to open a second amphitheatre at Rue du Faubourg du Temple, near the ‘Boulevard du Crime.’ He was forced to leave Paris when hostilities erupted between the French and the British in 1793. His circus was temporarily taken over by an Italian, Antonio Franconi (1737-1836). With the arrival of Napoleon and the First Empire in 1804, Astley returned to Paris and resumed control of his circus. Astley is credited with building at least nineteen permanent circuses during his lifetime.

In the meantime, Charles Hughes left his circus in London and in 1793 was invited to St. Petersburg Russia to perform for Catherine the Great. Hughes is credited with introducing the circus to Russia, but in fact he only performed exhibitions of trick riding. A Frenchman, Jacques Tourniaire, built the first circus at the Royal Palace in St. Petersburg in 1824, marking the beginning of the Russian circus.

Listed below are events signifying early developments of the circus in America.


1716 "The Lyon of Barbary" arrived in British North American Colonies
1721 Right First camel arrives in the British North American Colonies
1733 First polar bear arrives in the British North American Colonies
1751 First hospital
1768 Right First Leopard arrived in the British North American Colonies
1768 Right Philip Astley opens a riding school in London
1773-1840 Anti-circus laws in Connecticut and Vermont
1774 Right Continental Congress discourages attendence at traveling shows
1775 Benjamin Franklin, first Postmaster General under Continental Congress
1776 U.S. Declares Independence
1781 U.S. wins battle of Yorktown
1781 Right A menagerie of birds, reptiles, snakes and quadrupeds advertised in New York City
1787 United States constitution drafted
1790-1800 Nation’s first capital established in Philadelphia
1792 Kentucky 15th state admitted to the Union
   Pre-1793 | 1793-1800 | 1801-1824 | 1825-1871 | 1872-1905 | 1906-1940 |
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