Circus Month - The History of the Circus: Part II

March 20, 2015

With the circus brought to Mexico in 1802, it was fair to say that it has really started to have a big impact upon the world. Although permanent buildings were in place in the largest cities, there weren’t enough residents in the New World for long-term resident circuses to be sustainable. With the US still being explored westward and new settlements popping up more quickly than ever before, showmen had little choice but to take their shows on the road.

 Joshua Purdy Brown was the first person to move the circus from a wooden structure to a large canvas tent, doing so in 1825. His circus was different to the European version, travelling with a whole host of exotic animals including elephants and only occasionally interspersing his productions with the more commonly known circus acts. These travelling menageries became commonplace around the 1830s, with a group of 135 enterprising farmers controlling thirteen menageries and three other affiliated circuses, a world away from Europe’s circuses, which continued under performing families.

In 1871, former museum promoter P.T. Barnum teamed up with circus entrepreneur William Cameron Coup to create a circus that interspersed animals, performers and ‘museum of oddities’. This exhibition went on to become another integral part of the US circus, where people with unconventional illnesses and genetic deformities were a huge hit with the public. The very next year, Coup was travelling ‘P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus’ via rail – the first to do so- and added a second ring to the circus, comfortably pushing Barnum’s to be the most popular circus in the whole of North America.

 A third ring was added in 1881 and before long, a seven ringed circus was touring the country, with the industry being the most popular form of entertainment across the continent. The ever-increasing audience also led to larger tents and worse views, moving the focus of the show from entertainment and artistry to experiencing a huge spectacle, another feature unique to the American circus.

In Part III, we’ll see how the circus progressed from the 1900s to the modern day.


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By Henry Fosdike