Circus in America TimeLine


The Invention of the Big Top

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown (1802?-1834) revolutionized the circus business and other traveling shows. He held his performances under a large, portable canvas tent. This innovation allowed shows to move between cities quickly and easily, go anywhere, stay as long or short as they desired, and perform rain or shine. With this flexibility, Brown’s show could perform and have an income six days per week. In 1825, the first season that Brown and his partner Lewis Bailey used a tent, they traveled from Wilmington, Delaware, into Virginia, stopping at Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Norfolk, Lawrenceville, and Lynchburg, and then up the Shenandoah Valley to Maryland and Pennsylvania. All of these shows were performed under a tent: the only indoor location that season was in Washington, DC.

By the mid 1830s, the canvas tent system had become commonplace. With this mobility, owners now could schedule shows in 150 or more different cities in a season, performing six days a week, but they now needed wagons to transport the equipment as well as the horses to pull the wagons and personnel to drive the wagons and erect the tent. The tent was a mixed blessing—show in smaller places but created a greater overhead. Thayer remarks that, “the tent added to the proprietor’s daily expense, and changed the relationship between himself and his employees. Instead of erecting costly arenas he now had the cost of wagons to carry his property, of horses to pull the wagons and of teamsters to drive them. The performers and musicians, theretofore on their own as to food and lodging, now traveled constantly with the company” (Thayer, op.cit. 75).A circus now needed a reliable income to offset the constant daily expenses. Greater mobility meant that circuses could move faster but it also meant that owners had less time to build up audiences and bring in revenue. There was growing pressure to bring in audiences quickly and efficiently. As tents grew bigger, the performers became more removed from the audience and the acts had to be more eye-catching and more spectacular, which of course added to the expense of running and moving the show.

A more interesting consequence of this change, however, is how the tent changed the relationship between the audiences and the performers. Initially, circuses were intimate shows and audiences were quite close to the performers in structures that were often custom-built in that city. The show stayed around for weeks or months at a time, mingling with the local populace. Audiences would become familiar with the performers and shows would offer a variety of acts to bring people back in. If the circus used permanent buildings, it might share the facilities with theatres companies or music performances. These buildings might also be quite intimate and the audience would be able to see small details of each act. When the American circus broke away from this type of setting, the relationship between audience and performer lost some of its intimacy and relied more heavily on large-scale effects and more generic acts that would please larger groups. European circus performances, on the other hand, did not adopt canvas tents but continued to use existing buildings well into the 20th century. Consequently, European circuses have much closer ties to theatre and have maintained a greater emphasis on nuanced relationships between performer and audience.

The arrival of the tent also complicated the already difficult task of promoting shows to prospective audiences. Advertising materials had to provoke excitement and anticipation of seeing a show that was around for one day only. The printed bills that were used in the 18th, 19th and 20th century had to give the populace the necessary information to catch their attention; namely, title, date, and featured acts. John Bill Ricketts used printed bills to advertise his show. Pepin & Breschard used printed bills depicting an equestrian on a horse waving American flags. By 1822 with the first steam-powered press, the cost of printing of the posters could be reduced and the output of posters was increased.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the American circus had reached a level of popularity in the country that no other form of entertainment could rival. This was also true with its advertising. In the summer of 1983 edition of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Richard Flint states: “The circus led the way in large, illustrated newspaper advertisements and virtually developed the outdoor advertising business by the use of huge, colorful posters. As early as 1833 a New Hampshire editor noted that the traveling shows were operating ‘on a new plan … in order to excite the curiosity of the people…. Large show bills measuring seven or eight feet in length proportionately made with cuts representing the remarkable docility of the lions and the great feats of the monkey’ were now to be seen in the towns” (p. 214-215). As early as the 1830s, large presses allowed the printers to combine large poster together to produce billboard-size posters.

A National Institution

The Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting the Hudson River at Albany to the Great Lakes and allowing entrepreneurs and ordinary settlers alike began to migrate westward in ever-greater numbers. By mid-century, there were dozens of circuses, large and small, crossing the country, playing wherever new populations justified a performance. By October 1849, Joseph A. Rowe had already gotten all the way around Cape Horn to San Francisco and Sacramento. In 1847, Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie toured in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin and purchased one thousand acres of land in Delavan, Wisconsin establishing the first permanent winter quarters in the West. Thayer comments that,

The most important aspect of the Mabie purchase is that they established the circus as a national institution. It took its place with railroad and shipping lines, with publishing and horse-racing as entities known to virtually everyone and it took the circus out of the hands of the men of Westchester and Putman counties [New York] and made of it a national enterprise. Delavan became the circus center of the West and thrived as such for almost forty years. (Thayer, op.cit., p. 216)

During this same period, a Somers, New York, cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845) (no relationship to Bailey of Barnum & Bailey) purchased an African elephant, which he exhibited with great success. Bailey added other exotic animals to his travels, which led to the creation of a traveling menagerie. His popularity and prosperity convinced other farmers in the Somers area (the same area that had produced Joshuah Purdy Brown) to go into the menagerie business. In 1835, a group of 135 farmers and menagerie owners joined forces to create the Zoological Institute, a powerful trust that controlled thirteen menageries and three affiliated circuses. Shows under their control traveled lucrative routes designed for efficient operations and avoiding all competition. Although the institute itself did not survive the financial panic of 1837, three of its survivors, John J. June, Lewis B. Titus, and Caleb S. Angevine, were owners of a joint stock company that continued to thrive. With their friends and relatives, they maintained a firm monopoly on both the menagerie and circus businesses until 1877. They were able to combine their capital to launch major expeditions abroad to capture exotic new animals and buy out competing shows. They soon earned the nickname “the flatfoots,” allegedly because they thwarted all competition by threatening to “put their foot down flat” on anyone who tried to enter the menagerie business without their permission.

P.T. Barnum

The most recognizable name in American circus history is P.T. Barnum (aka Phineas Taylor Barnum) even though he had very little to do with the true circus until he was sixty years old. There were many dramatic personalities in the development of the American circus, but Barnum was undoubtedly the most dramatic. He had an uncanny ability to attract public attention through curiosity, the bizarre and the strange, and his advertising methods paved the way for modern marketing techniques. He attracted the public’s attention by repeating a slogan, idea, slogan or a phrase, and he knew that any publicity is better than none when drawing the public’s attention to something new or obscure. He also realized that the public should get its money’s worth, even if it does not get precisely what it thought it was buying.

Noted historian George Speight, in his A History of The Circus, writes, “Phineas T. Barnum is the bet-known name in the history of the American Circus. It is typical of the man that this is the result of publicity rather than of achievement; he had dabbled with circuses at an early stage in his career, but he was a man with too much contempt for the public to devote his life to putting on a show of real skill and merit; his genius lay in the publicity he got for everything he touched” (p. 143). After years of museum management and numerous financial setbacks, Barnum’s museum burned to the ground in 1868 and he went into a self-imposed retirement and started writing his autobiography, called Struggles and Triumphs. In 1871, circus entrepreneurs William Cameron Coup and Dan Costello urged him out of retirement and the three launched the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus, a traveling variety show of which the “museum” part was an exhibition of animal and human oddities, soon to become the integral part of the American circus known as the Sideshow.

The railroads

After the canvas tent, the biggest change to the circus was the railroad. The first steam-powered railway passenger service was in England in 1825 and the steam-powered Tom Thumb locomotive was built in Baltimore in 1830. Over the next forty years the railroads rapidly developed and connected the entire continent, offering reliable, weatherproof, and fast transportation across enormous distances.

Circuses had moved about from town to town by either horse-drawn wagons or boats. This was slow, expensive, and not always reliable (wagons could be delayed by bad weather or poorly maintained roads and rivers were subject to unpredictable changes). But when a circus traveled by “the rails,” it could jump hundreds of miles in a single night. The circuses had previously moved great quantities of material and men from town to town in large caravans sometimes referred to as “trains.” When movement on rails became an option, many shows easily switched over to this form of flexible and growing form of transportation. In a single season, a show could travel very far from its winter quarters, to virtually any city in the United States serviced by a railroad. It could also set up special excursion trains which brought the audience to the show, greatly increasing exposure and drawing in people who might otherwise never see the show.

The first recorded movement by rail of an American circus was in 1832, when Charles Bacon and Edward Derious moved parts of their show in Georgia. There were some minor attempts to move shows in 1839, 1845 and 1850, but it wasn’t until the early 1850s that circus owners began to look earnestly at transporting their shows on the railroad. Stone & Madigan Circus used the railroad to move their show in 1851. In 1853 the Railroad Circus & Crystal Amphitheatre became the first show to tour their entire season on rails. In 1855 the Great Western Railroad Circus followed suit. Two years later Gilbert R. Spalding and Charles J. Rogers opened the “Spalding & Rogers Railroad Circus” on nine custom-built cars. The 1857 tour started in Washington D.C. and traveled through the states of Pennsylvania, New, Massachusetts, Maine, the British provinces, Michigan, and Ohio. In Ohio they continued their tour along the river on the Spalding and Rogers Floating Palace.

Of course, traveling by railroad did not exempt a show from technical and atmospheric problems. In their history of the circus and the railroads, Tom Parkinson and Charles Philip Fox write: “Even though the 1860’s were showing a rise in railroad shows, playing more and profitable cities, the end of the decade proved to be very difficult for the traveling circuses. Of twenty-eight major circuses that opened, only six completed the season because of the bad business resulting from endless rains.” (The Circus Moves by Rail, Boulder, CO: Pruett, 1978. p. 4) The different gauges on the rails were also not a trivial issue, and were not standardized until the mid-1880s. Spalding and Rogers used adjustable axles on their railroad cars to cope with this problem.

From the late 1860s through the early 70s, Americans witnessed an increase in the number of circuses traveling by rail. The Dan Castello Circus was the first circus to use the railroad to reach California by July of 1869, a few months after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met up in Promontory Point, Utah to form the first transcontinental railway. As the US population moved west and urban areas expanded, the circuses followed. Traveling by rail was more expensive than traveling by wagon, and the circus owners needed to bring in more and more reliable income, so they worked hard to bring in more audiences. As the circus grew more popular, the tents became bigger, raising costs for materials and labor. The circus had to move faster, more efficiently, and make longer jumps to play in lucrative areas. Fred Dahlinger, Jr. in his article in Bandwagon; “The Development of the Railroad Circus part two,” quotes an article from Clipper’s making special note of the circuses on the rails in 1872. Dahlinger notes, “Many of the largest shows during the coming season will travel almost entirely by railroad, chartering for this purpose special trains, and visiting only the larger cities and towns.” (Dahlinger Jr., “The Development of the Railroad Circus” PT. 2:16) Smaller circuses still toured the country and played to smaller audiences, but the railroad had changed the fabric of the circus.

For many years, W.C. Coup has been erroneously identified as the person who put the circus on the rails because of a reporter quoted Coup as stating he was the first showman to make use of railroad cars and trains. We know that this was not the first venture of moving a circus on the railroad. Coup, however, can be given the credit “for being the manager who ushered in a new era in the circus business.” Dahlinger, “The Development of the Railroad Circus” PT. 2:17 The events listed below shows the great advances the circus made with use of the tent and the railroads.


1825 Joshuah Purdy Brown presents his show in a tent
1825 Right Hackaliah Bailey builds Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York.
1825 John Quincy Adams is sworn in as 6th President of the United States
1825 Completion of the Erie Canal
1829 Andrew Jackson sworn in as 7th President of the United States
1830-1860 Railroad circuses maintain a smaller size compared to overland wagon shows
1831 Cyrus McCormick’s reaper
1831 John B. Green purchases the elephant Helen McGregor and adds her to his show
1832 Joshuah Purdy Brown merges circus and menagerie
1833 Andrew Jackson sworn in as President for 2nd term
1833 American Anti-Slavery Society founded
1833 Right Isaac A. Van Amburgh enters a cage of wild animals in the Richmond Hill Theatre.
1834 First railroad to the west from Philadelphia
1835 Right A group of 135 farmers and menagerie owners in Somers NY create the Zoological Institute
1835 Circus wagons join the circus parades
1835 Right Joice Heth displayed by Barnum
1836 Arkansas 25th state admitted to the Union
1836 Fall of the Alamo
1837 Michigan 26th state admitted to the Union
1837 Menageries go into a decline
1837 Martin van Buren sworn in as 8th President of the United States
1837 John Deere’s steel plow
1838 The earliest record of a circus troupe moving by rail from Forsyth to Macon, Georgia
1840 Mabie's Circus hires Seth B. Howes as the manager and director
1841 William Harrison sworn in as 9th President of the United States
1841 John Tyler sworn in as 10th President of the United States
1841 First State Fair Syracuse, NY
1841 P.T. Barnum buys American Museum in Manhattan
1842 Lt. John Fremont maps the Oregon Trail opening the West to migration
1842 Right Tom Thumb makes his debut on New Year's day in New York City.
1844 United States annexes parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas
1844 Dan Rice makes first paid appearance as a clown
1845 Florida 27th state admitted to the Union
1845 Texas 28th state admitted to the Union
1845 Wisconsin 29th state admitted to the Union
1845 James Polk sworn in as 11th President of the United States
1846 Iowa 30th state admitted to the Union
1846 United States declares war on Mexico
1846 William F. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody born in Iowa
1847 United States gains California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming
1847 United States annexes the Oregon Territory, Idaho, part of Montana, Oregon, Washington and part of Wyoming
1847 James A. Bailey born in Detroit as James A. McGinnis July 4
1848 Gilbert R. Spalding uses quarter poles for the first time
1848 Dan Rice forms the "Dan Rice Great Circus." Rice is billed as "America's favorite clown."
1848 Discovery of gold in California
1849 Jenny Lind debuts in America
1850 California 31st state admitted to the Union
1850 Millard Fillmore sworn in as 13th President of the United States
1850 Riverboat Circus's reach a height in popularity
1850 Sideshows added to circus
1852 Spalding & Rogers launch Floating Palace at a cost of $42,000.
1852 Right Albert Charles Ringling born.
1852 Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin published
1853 Franklin Pierce sworn in as 14th President of the United States
1853 Right Dan Rice buys elephant Lalla Rookh from Seth B. Howes for $5,000.
1854 Right Gus Ringling born.
1855 J.C. Stoddard received a U.S. patent for a steam calliope
1857 James Buchanan sworn in as 15thPresident of the United States
1857 US Supreme Court issues Dred Scott decision
1858 Minnesota 32nd state admitted to the Union
1858 Right Otto Ringling born.
1858 Spalding & Rogers' Circus tent was used for the Lincoln and Douglas debate when they were running for U.S. Senate.
1859 Right Blondin crosses the Niagara Falls on a tight rope
1859 Jules Leotard performs on the trapeze at Paris’ Cirque Napoleon wearing the skin-tight costume, which now bears his name
1859 John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry
1859 Charles Darwin publishes treatise on evolution
1860 30,500 miles of railroad track in the U.S.
1860 First use of the abbreviation "Bros." by the Antonio Bros.
1860 Pony Express delivers mail from Missouri to California in ten days
1861 Kansas 34th state admitted to the Union
1861 Confederate States of America is formed
1861 Assault on Fort Sumter. Civil War starts
1861 Abraham Lincoln sworn in as 16thPresident of the United States
1861 United States introduces the passport system for international travel
1861 George Eliot publishes Silas Marner
1862 President Lincoln makes the Emancipation Proclamation
1863 West Virginia 35th state admitted to the Union
1863 February 10, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren were married at Grace Church in New York City.
1863 President Lincoln establishes Thanksgiving holiday
1863 Roller skating introduced in America
1863 First stolen base in baseball by Eddie Cuthbert of the Philadelphia
1863 Right Alf T. Ringling born.
1864 Nevada 36th state admitted to the Union
1864 Atlanta evacuated and occupied by Sherman’s forces
1864 ‘In God We Trust’ first appears on U.S. coins
1864 Stephen Foster dies
1864 Karl Marx founds the first International Workingmen”s Association in London and New York
1864 Right Charles Ringling born.
1865 Abraham Lincoln sworn in as President for 2nd term
1865 Andrew Johnson sworn in as 17th President of the United States
1865 Trans-Atlantic cable completed
1865 Winslow Homer paints Prisoners from the Front
1865 Lewis Carroll publishes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
1865 First professional baseball convention held in New York
1865 First carpet sweeper comes into use
1866 Right John Ringling born.
1867 Nebraska 37th state admitted to the Union
1868 1,367 state, county and district fairs held every year
1868 Right Henry Ringling born.
1869 Transcontinental Railroad completed
1869 Ulysses S. Grant sworn in as 18thPresident of the United States
1869 Dan Castello’s Circus and Menagerie makes first transcontinental tour
1869 The Ringling brothers see their first circus in McGregor, Iowa
1869 Colorado 38th state admitted to the Union
1871 Barnum, Coup and Castello call their tented show Barnum’s Great Traveling museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome and Circus
1871 Great Chicago Fire
1871 Jesse James Gang makes their first train robbery
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