Circus in America TimeLine


1872-1905 marks what many call the “Golden Age” of the American circus. It also is a period of consolidation of smaller circus companies into large, powerful companies that came to control the entire industry.

In 1872 Barnum, Coup and Castello utilized the railroad to transport the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus. A number of innovations can be attributed to the 1872 Barnum show. Coup “was instrumental in getting the show to travel by rail, devising loading and unloading methods and arranging special excursions from the outlying towns to the show site. [He] introduced a second ring, developed ingenious advertising and promotional stunts such as the Devil’s Whistle, mass litho posting and small town excursions by bands, clowns, etc., to create interest in the show which was in the area.” Slout, William, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus. p.151.

1873 was a banner year for the development of the circus with an increase in attendance, touring, and tent size with the addition of the second ring to increase performance space. The second "innovation" of the circus in 1873 was addition of the flying squadron. The flying squadron consisted of a group of men that would arrive in town a day ahead of the circus to drive the tent stakes. This meant that the circus would save considerable time in putting up tents and preparing for performances. The circus was now able to follow the great expansion of American wherever railroad tracks were laid. No longer was the circus relegated to follow only the dirt roads of an expanding country. The circus had become by far the most popular form of entertainment in America, and Barnum , Coup’s and Castello’s enterprise was America’s leading circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

During the 1870s circuses grew larger and larger. They were now able to transport massive amounts of equipment, hundred of animals and people, and larger tents with more seats. In 1881 the larger tents permitted Barnum and Bailey to expand the number of performing areas from one ring to three rings to accommodate the ever-increasing number of acts and animals. By the end of the century, a circus was not considered worthwhile unless it had three rings under the big top—more rings meant a better show.

The merging of James A. Bailey and P.T. Barnum was a typical Barnum adventure. Bailey was affiliated with the Great London show of Cooper, Bailey and Hutchinson. On March 10, 1880, Cooper and Bailey were delighted when their large Indian elephant Hebe gave birth, in Philadelphia, to “Little Columbia.” This was the first elephant ever born in America. Envious of the publicity and eager to own the baby himself, Barnum reputedly offered $100,000 for her, but Cooper and Bailey wired back “Will not sell at any price” and promptly incorporated Barnum’s offer into their own publicity. Barnum’s reaction was, “I had at last met showmen ‘worthy of my steel’!” The merger of the Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” with Bailey’s Great London show during the 1881 season gave Barnum access to some of the great publicity that Bailey had amassed with his show. The show’s title for the 1881 season was “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie, The Great London Circus & Grand international Allied Shows.” The show in 1866 grew to enormous size when for a single week in Philadelphia when performing jointly with the Adam Forepaugh Circus, they used four rings, two platforms and the hippodrome track. (Saxon, A.H. P.T. Barnum The Legend and the Man, 1989, Columbia University Press. P. 287)

Barnum now wanted an attraction that would maintain a bigger and better image. Barnum was informed that he could acquire from the London zoo, the largest African pachyderm in captivity. On Easter Sunday in 1882, thousands gather at dock site for the arrival of Barnum’s latest sensation, “Jumbo.” The New York Times declared that there was more excitement in the city “than there would be in London if Queen Victoria’s imperial knee was swelled to twice its royal size.”

After three years of traveling with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Barnum lost his super star on Tuesday, September 15, 1885 in St. Thomas, Ontario. Jumbo, while walking back to the circus train on the main line of the Grand Trunk railway, was hit and killed by a freight train. The ever-practical Barnum, having previously arranged for Professor Henry A. Ward, head of Ward’s natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, to mount Jumbo’s hide and his skeleton, promptly exhibited the remains of his star.

Barnum suffered a stroke in 1890 and passed away in April 1891 at the age of 80. After Barnum’s death, James A. Bailey took control of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He had acquired part interest in of his principal rivals, the Adam Forepaugh Circus, in 1890. Adam Forepaugh had first entered the circus business after receiving a share in the Tom King Excelsior Circus as payment on a debt, and began to tour a show bearing his own name in 1866. As a businessman he recognized the need for innovation in a competitive industry. He was the first to hold his performances under two separate “roundtops,” one for the menagerie and one for the circus performance. He was also the first to incorporate the Wild West Show into the circus. In less than twenty years Forepaugh went from dealing livestock to being the fiercest competitor to P.T. Barnum. While he achieved fame and fortune, he was notoriously corrupt and greedy and was known for grifting and short-changing spectators. Forepaugh did much to advance the circus but his irreverence for his customers’ money and belongings helped accusations of the circus fold as immoral. Before leaving for Europe with the Barnum & Bailey circus, Bailey combined the Forepaugh show with the Sells Brothers Circus under the name of Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Great Consolidated Shows.

Another circus that would forever change the landscape formed in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The five brothers of the Ringling family ¾ Albert Charles, Charles August (Gus), William Henry Otto, Alfred Theodore (Alf T.), Charles Edward (Charley), Henry William George (Henry) ¾ started as a small wagon circus. The eldest brother, Al Ringling, had begun performing in 1879 as a juggler and acrobat, when he was not working as a carriage trimmer. The brothers banded together in 1882, blending their talents in music, theatre, and acrobatics. By 1890, their show had grown so large and prosperous that they were able to convert to railroad transportation.

Unlike Forepaugh, their drive for success never seemed to edge into greed. The Ringling Brothers knew the importance of fairness and were equal partners. Recognizing the corruption of competing circuses, the brothers created a safe and morally sound environment. At Ringling shows there was no profanity, no crooked gaming devices and no short-changing. Their business approach and their commitment to fairness made Ringling a lasting household name for over one hundred years. When Bailey returned from Europe with the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1902, the Ringling Bros. Circus was a powerful rival.

1884 saw the beginning of yet another circus, with the very impressive title “Wallace and Company’s Great World Menagerie, Grand international Mardi Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo, and Alliance of Novelties” (it was renamed the Great Wallace Shows after the first season). It went on the road in April 1884. Ben Wallace, a former livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana, formed this circus with his partner James P. Anderson. Al G. Field, a talented African-American Virginian who was one of the country’s top minstrels when he wasn’t traveling with the circus, was Wallace’s head clown and equestrian director from 1884-1886. During this period it was very rare for an African-American to hold two important positions in the circus. For over a hundred years, the circus industry, which on one level seems so accepting of every variety of human being, was in reality no exception to the rule of discrimination. Black circus performers after the mid-19th century were traditionally limited to minstrelsy, freaks, colored sideshow bands, and tribal warriors. For the most part, the menial jobs of the circus labor force were usually given to the black population of the show.

The Wallace circus was successful, but it ran into problems. The show became so well known for encouraging scam artists and pickpocket artists that it operated under the name “Cook and Whitby’s European Circus, Museum and Menagerie” for the 1892-1894 seasons. Even so, the show often had to circumvent towns for fear of reprisal for crimes committed the year before. In March of 1898, Diamond, then the largest elephant in the country died at his winter quarters in Peru, Indiana. And, with the show traveling on rail, train wrecks were a constant worry. There were wrecks in 1892, 1903, and 1908. The 1903 accident, in Durand, Michigan, killed more than twenty people and several animals (including an elephant) when the train’s air brakes apparently failed. The Wallace show was not the only circus in America to suffered railroad mishaps. An article in Bandwagon, September/October, 1975, Fred D. Pfening, Jr. lists nineteen accidents between 1877 and 1906. In 1907, when Ben Wallace bought the great German wild animal trainer Karl Hägenbeck’s show, it became the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The events listed below begins with putting a large circus on rails and following the development of Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Bros.


1872 W.C. Coup and partner Dan Castello persuade P.T. Barnum to come out of retirement and launch the P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling World's Fair. This partnership signals the beginning of the Golden Age of the circus in America.
1872 P.T. Barnum and W.C. Coup's circus was the first large circus to move by rail on a daily basis.
1873 Coup and Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Hippodrome and World’s Fair has two rings with the hippodrome track running round them.
1873 Ulysses Grant sworn in as President for 2nd term
1874 Right Ida Lorina Wilhemina Ringling born
1876 Mark Twain publishes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1876 James A. Baileytakes the Cooper &Bailey Circus to California, Australia and South America.
1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents telephone
1876 The United States is 100 years old
1876 Sioux defeat General Custer at Little Big Horn
1877 1877-1881 Rutherford B. Hayes serves as 19th President
1877 Thomas Edison invents phonograph
1878 Once-vast herds of buffalo on Great Plains now significantly diminished due to westward expansion
1879 Edison invents electric light
1879 Right The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie, with James E. Cooper and James A. Bailey and W.W. Cole's Circus were the first circuses in the country to illuminate their big tops with electricity. They used steam powered electric generators and open-arc lighting. this appears to be lifted right from Davis, it needs to be reworked
1879 Flying trapeze artist Eddie Silbon performs the first double back somersault at the Paris hippodrome.
1879 Right Al Ringling worked part time as a juggler and acrobat
1880's Industrial Age gives rise to new era of Western imperialism
1880's The American West is settled
1880 First live baby Asian elephant born in America named Columbia.
1880 Barnum merges his show with James.A. Bailey's Great London Circus.
1880 Rosa M. Richter Mademoiselle Zazel,"The Human Projectile"is fired from a cannon traveling 40 feet and caught by another performer hanging from a trapeze.
1881 James A. Garfield sworn in as 20th President of the United States. President Garfield is shot on July 2 and dies on September 19
1881 1881-1885 Chester A. Arthur serves as the 21st President of the United States
1881 Adam Forepaugh searches for Lalla Rookh"the most beautiful woman in America,"inventing the beauty contest with a $10,000 prize.
1881 Wyatt Earp and brothers win gunfight at the OK Corral
1881 Clara Barton forms the American Red Cross
1882 Right P.T. Barnum's production, the Barnum and London Show, presents three-ring format in New York City.
1882 Right P.T. Barnum's Jumbo arrives in New York City
1882 The Ringling Brothers began performing a blend of blackface minstrelsy, comic skits, dance, songs, and juggling routines in hall shows around Wisconsin as the Ringling Brothers' Classic and Comic Concert Company
1883 J.A. Bailey inspired by displays at the World's Fair, presented Ethnological Congresses displaying cultures and foreign people to Americans.
1883 Standard Time is adopted by the General Time Convention
1884 Right Colonel William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, creates the first American Wild West Show.
1884 Right The five Ringling Brothers started their first circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin -- Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Great Double Shows
1885 1885-1889 Grover Cleveland serves as 22nd President
1885 First modern bicycle manufactured in England
1885 Right Jumbo is killed by a freight train September 15
1886 Statue of Liberty unveiled
1886 Walter L. Main and father bought 20 horses for $200 for their new circus. The city of Cleveland was replacing its horse-drawn streetcars with electric trolleys.
1886 W.W. Cole is the first to add a Wild West performance.
1887 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph (record player)
1888 P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey combine their circus shows to form Barnum & Bailey Circus
1888 George Eastman introduces Kodak box cameras
1889 1889-1893 Benjamin Harrison serves as 23rd President of the United States
1889 North Dakota 39th state admitted to the Union
1889 South Dakota 40th state admitted to the Union
1889 Montana 41st state admitted to the Union
1889 Washington 42nd state admitted to the Union
1889 Idaho 43rd state admitted to the Union
1890 Bicycle craze sweeps country, 100,000 new bicycle owners
1890 Wyoming 44th state admitted to the Union
1890 Stanford White's designed second Madison Square Garden opens.
1890 Right Ringling Brothers Circus travels by rail
1890 1890-1924—23 million immigrants came to United States.
1890 US is in the “Victorian Era,” end of the American Frontier
1891 Right P.T. Barnum dies April 7; James A. Bailey continues running Barnum & Bailey Circus
1891 Ringling Bros. Circus expands to a three-ring circus.
1892 Adam Forepaugh Circus covered an 8 story building with 4,938 lithographs
1893 1893-1897 Grover Cleveland serves as 24th President, his second term as President
1893 At an Adam Forepaugh performance in Sioux Falls, SD., the audience is trapped underneath the canvas of big top after strong winds collapse the tent
1893 In River Falls, Wisconsin 7 people are killed after lighting strikes one of the center poles of Ringling Bros. Circus big top
1895 1895 Height of Victorian fashion; women’s clothing restrictive
1895 Gillette Co. invents safety razor
1895 Some 300 Barnum & Bailey laborers occupied three sleeping cars that were each designed to hold fifty to sixty people each
1895 One of the first female clowns, "Evetta"appears on the Barnum &Bailey Circus.
1895 First auto race in America—Chicago to Milwaukee
1896 Barnum & Bailey exhibits a Duryea automobile
1896 Utah 45th state admitted to the Union
1896 Ringling Brothers spend $128.000 for Posters as part of advertising campaign
1896 James A. Bailey combines the Sells and Forepaugh circuses
1897 A Latvian teenager named Lena Jordan is credited with performing the first successful triple somersault on the flying trapeze
1897 Ringling Bros. features “black top” tent under which Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope films are shown
1897 Right Barnum & Bailey Circus begins European tour 1897-1902
1897 1897-1901 William McKinley serves as 25th President
1897 First U.S. subway opens in Boston
1898 2,500 women graduate from college, only jobs available for them are low-paying teaching positions
1898 Spanish-American War
1898 Ringling Brothers bring their huge circus entourage to New Orleans and virtually shut down the city
1899 Aspirin invented
1900 Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams
1900 German army investigated cook house system
1900 Americans leave rural areas and move to cities; emigration from Europe continues; 2.5 million residents of New York City, 2 million are foreign-born; telephones now in homes of 1.3 million Americans; U.S. population is 76 million.
1900 Cotton candy invented by Thomas Patton
1900 Nationwide unemployment at 12%
1900 5 transcontinental railroads criss-crossed country
1901 The first Nobel prizes are awarded
1901 Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery is published
1901 President William McKinley is assassinated by a mentally ill anarchist named Leon Czolgosz on September 14, 1901
1901 1901-1909 Theodore Roosevelt serves as 26th President
1901 Scott Joplin’s ragtime jazz extremely popular
1901 Board of Education in Bridgeport, Connecticut vote to close the schools on circus day
1901 The National Biscuit Company introduced Barnum’s Animals, crackers encased in a vivid "take along" package covered with pictures of animals.
1902 Barnum & Bailey Circus returns from Europe after six seasons to find The Ringling Brothers well established.
1902 Ninety eight Circuses and Menageries—the highest number in U.S. history. Thirty eight traveled by Railroad—seven traveled coast to coast.
1902 Ringling Brothers Circus traveled on sixty-five railroad cars.
1902 Gollmar Brothers—cousins to the Ringling Bros. went out on the rails.
1902 Right Shift in the country from provincial, rural society to urban society.
1902 The Teddy Bear was introduced, named after President Theodore Roosevelt
1903 The Wright brothers make the first successful airplane flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
1903 Barnum & Bailey features Volo the Volitant, who jumps a 56-foot gap on a bicycle; he later shares spotlight with Ugo Ancillotti, who performs bicycle loop-the-loop.
1903 The first silent movie, Great Train Robbery, is a great success
1903 The Women’s Union League forms to urge women to join unions, since male dominated unions seldom recruit women members
1904 Construction on the Panama Canal begins
1904 Right Ringling Brothers pioneered the use of power-driven stake drivers using a device designed by George H. Heiser
1905 January 10, Bailey transferred a half interest in the Forepaugh-Sells show and its management to the Ringlings.
1905 Barnum & Bailey circus makes first transcontinental tour to the West Coast.
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