Circus in America TimeLine

1793 - 1800

John Bill Ricketts (?-1800), a rider and former student of Charles Hughes, arrived in Philadelphia from London in 1792 and opened a riding school. He also announced his intention to open an American circus:

Mr. Ricketts lately from London respectfully acquaints the public that he has erected at considerable expense a circus, situated at the corner of Market and Twelfth Streets where he proposes instructing Ladies and Gentlemen in the elegant accomplishments of riding. -The Circus will be opened on Thursday Next, the 25th October 1792.  (Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, 23 October 1792)

Ricketts did not manage to get his circus open that fall, but the riding school was popular. A Philadelphia paper noted the high class of students attending Ricketts’s school (here referred to as a “circus,” in the sense of an enclosed space for feats of horsemanship).

Amongst the variety of amusements inviting the fashionable class of citizens to every quarter of Philadelphia Mr. Ricketts [sic] CIRCUS in Market Street near the Centre Square bids fair to come in for a considerable portion of the public favor. Already we find it resorted to by numbers of ladies and gentlemen every morning, who are desirous to perfect themselves in the elegant accomplishments of horsemanship. –We have not [discovered whether] Mr. Ricketts intends favoring the city with any public exhibition this season. He is at present employed in the business of instruction. Perhaps we may expect to see him make a public exhibition early in the spring. The encouragement of patronage he has already met with in this country, have been gratefully acknowledged by him upon every occasion. (General Advertiser, 10 November 1792)

Ricketts persevered, though, and in the spring the following announcement of the first circus in America appeared:

CIRCUS Mr. Ricketts respectfully acquaints the public—that his unparalleled Equestrian Performance, will commence on Wednesday the 3d of April, weather permitting—For the First Time in America.

He has erected, at a very considerable expense, a CIRCUS, for that purpose situate in Market, the corner of Thirteenth Street [twelfth]. Further particulars will be expressed in Hand Bills.

Box 7/6—Pitt 3/9 Doors to be opened a quarter past 3 o’clock, and the Performance to begin at 4 o’clock Boxes to be taken of Mr. Moul, the box keeper, at the circus, from 10 o’clock in the Morning till 3 in the afternoon. Tickets may be had at Mr. Bradford’s Book Store, and at the Circus. (Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, 1 April 1793).

And, as promised, on the corner of Market and Twelfth streets in Philadelphia near the center square, Philadelphia witnessed the first American circus performance on April 3, 1793. The structure was an uncovered arena and seated about eight hundred people. The performance ring was forty-two feet in diameter (after Astley’s ring) and the floor was a mixture of sawdust and soil to protect the horses’ hooves. A wooden structure was later constructed with a roof that may have been fabric. The first circus was not intended to amuse children but was aimed at the same groups that patronized the riding school in the mornings. “Ricketts circus was not a cute kiddie show: it was an equestrian show, and people were interested in horsemanship at the time, especially the military; and Ricketts gave riding and dressage lessons in the morning to the high society of Philadelphia and new York—and every other place he visited. Ricketts was in direct competition with the Chestnut Street Theatre, and shared the same audience (not to mention, in many instances, the same performers, notably the actors, dancers and acrobats who participated in his pantomimes (John Durang among others).” This show placed a much greater emphasis on equestrian acts than later circus acts: horses were part of daily life and riding skills were highly prized and admired. Ricketts’s circus was very successful: George Washington attended a performance on April 22, 1793. “Ricketts, like many circus equestrians and major theatre stars of the period, was a Free Mason and Washington was the major Masonic figure of his time and the head of the Philadelphia Lodge. If only for this, they would have met.” (Jando, Dominique. “Re: Ricketts and Washington.” E-mail to LaVahn Hoh. 30 November, 2005.)

Ricketts ended Philadelphia engagement on July 22 and moved his company to New York on July 26. He had previously purchased a piece of land near the Government House, and he soon built an open-air arena. He began performances on Wednesdays and Fridays, beginning on August 7. He closed on November 4 and moved down to the warmer weather of South Carolina. He opened another open-air arena in Charleston on Tradd Street on December 18. After four performances, the shows temporarily halted to await the opening of the theatre season on January 23, 1794. Two days after the theatre season began, Ricketts lowered his ticket prices and reopened his doors. He performed in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 1 and in Richmond, Virginia, on May 21. On July 3 he began a two-month stay in Baltimore, Maryland, all in open-air arenas.

Most of these performances took place in structures that Ricketts had built himself. Until the invention of the big-top canvas tent in 1825, circus performances were limited to places that had suitable performance venues or had available space for building one and that had audiences large enough to justify the expense. Early American circuses erected temporary wooden performance spaces in a city and remained in that city until the attendance dropped off. The circus owner could then sell the materials for lumber or re-use the space when he returned the next year. During the first forty years of the American circus, this process was limited to the larger urban areas that could support the cost of this type of operation (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Richmond, Norfolk, Albany, and Boston). Historian James S. Moy writes that, “Ricketts built specialized circus buildings to house his unique entertainments. Ricketts’ structures ranged from simple open air circus arenas to elaborate multipurpose buildings which could house both circus entertainments while alternating nights with a resident theatre company…. Rickets built over twenty circus structures, with at least one in every major city of the American eastern seaboard.” (“A Checklist of Circus Buildings Constructed by John B. Ricketts,” Bandwagon, September/October 1978: 21-23) In some cases, the buildings were permanent, winterized structures and could be reused, but otherwise the buildings were sold once Ricketts was ready to move on.

For the next six years Ricketts’ Circus traveled extensively up and down the east coast of America, returning to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York and adding to Boston, Albany, Annapolis, and Canada to his itinerary. His last American engagement was in Philadelphian April 3-24, 1800. He and members of his company then left for the West Indies. During their voyage to the West Indies, Ricketts was captured by pirates and taken to Guadalupe where all of his possessions where sold at a public auction. Fortunately for Ricketts, a merchant of Guadeloupe purchased the horses and lumber for him and he was able to erect a circus. Sometime later in 1800, Ricketts left the West Indies on a chartered bound for England and was lost at sea.

Ricketts had one great rival, Philip Lailson, a native of Sweden erected structures in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Noted circus historian Stuart Thayer remarks, “the most important thing, historically, about Lailson’s company is that in 1797 they paraded daily through the main commercial streets in an attempt to advertise the show. This is the first record of any kind of street display by a circus in America. Their parade was a simple passage of performers on horseback” (Stuart Thayer, “Annals Of The American Circus 1793-1829”Seattle: Dauven & Thayer, 2000) p. 8.)

On another front, for some time there had been an established tradition of importing exotic animals that were then exhibited in cities and towns for a fee. By the middle of the 18th century, lions, camels, and polar bears had all been exhibited singly in Boston. On April 13, 1796, Captain Jacob Crowninshield brought America’s first elephant into New York harbor and sold it to a Mr. Owen for $10,000.

By the end of the eighteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth century, Ricketts and Lailson had laid the groundwork for the circus to grow and expand with the expansion of American.

The events listed below demonstrate the significance of John Bill Ricketts and Philip Lailson during this time period.


1793 Right America's first circus started by John Bill Rickets
1793 George Washington sworn in as President for 2nd term
1793 Right John Bill Ricketts opens circus in New York City on Greenwich Street
1793 Right John Bill Ricketts opens circus in Charleston, SC opens December 18
1794 John Bill Ricketts opens in Norfolk, VA May 24
1794 John Bill Ricketts opens in Baltimore, MD July 3
1796 Tennessee 16th state admitted to Union
1796 John Adams elected second President of the United States
1796 First elephant arrives in New York
1797 Right First circus parade Philip Lailson
1798 United States Marine Corps established
1800 Washington, D.C. becomes official capital of the United States
   Pre-1793 | 1793-1800 | 1801-1824 | 1825-1871 | 1872-1905 | 1906-1940 |
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