Sawdust and Tinsel

‘The American Circus’ Chronicles the Big Top's Glory Days (Photos)

From lion tamers to pink elephants, a fine new anthology chronicles the golden age of the circus.

Jacob J. Gayer / National Geographic Society-Corbis

Jacob J. Gayer / National Geographic Society-Corbis

It wasn’t always about fights over animal rights and Cirque du Something or Other. The American circus has been around almost since the birth of the republic, and in the space of little more than two centuries it’s seen more changes than a Ringling showgirl has sequins. But the one thing that sets American circuses apart from their European counterparts is size. In this country we liked them big almost from the get-go. Now the art form has a book to match its grandeur: The American Circus, an extraordinary collection of vintage photographs and essays by experts on everything from pachyderms to parades. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!

The Circus as City

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Chicago in 1925, looking from the midway to the Big Top. At the height of their popularity, circuses traversed America by train with dozens of cars loaded with equipment, animals, and performers who lived on board. In its scale, the circus shown here is much like the Barnum & Bailey circus of 1895 that boasted “400 horses, 300 performers, seven dens of wild beasts … two droves of camels and 400 ponies,” as well as 24 elephants and a calliope. Photograph: Harry A. Atwell. Circus World Museum

Circus Parade

The circus parade—here the Forepaugh Circus marching through Montpelier, Vt., in 1892—was an American institution for decades. Its function was partly practical—the circus needed to get from the railroad to wherever it pitched its tent—but it was also the best sales pitch ever: the band played, the clowns raised hell, and the caged animals scared the living daylights out of all ages. Photograph: Vermont Historical Society

John Loengard / Time & Life Pictures-Getty Images


Spectators watch as the Sauk County circus band performs from the top of the Lion and Mirror Bandwagon during the Schlitz Circus Parade, part of ‘Old Milwaukee Days,’ July 4, 1964. If there is one area where the American circus has most noticeably declined, it is in its music. Circuses for more than a century boasted their own bands, which performed original pieces, collectively dubbed “screamers.” Today’s circuses mostly make do with prerecorded music, although a few, such as the Big Apple Circus, still travel with top-rate musicians. (Photo by John Loengard/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Original Circus Animal

P.T. Barnum is said to have claimed that “clowns and elephants are the pegs upon which the circus is hung.” Most historians would argue that point, since although the circus's origins are thousands of years old, the modern form, with a ring 40 or 42 feet across, was the brainchild of 18th-century horse trainer Philip Astley, who taught horsemanship and put on exhibitions of trick riding, which he fleshed out with clowns, tightrope walkers, and other performers. Even today animal-rights activists have a hard time dissuading circus performers or their audiences that horses have no place in the circus. Seen here: an equestrian on horseback at the turn of the last century. Photograph: Frederick W. Glaser, Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Archives.


Outdoor Advertising

Paul Stirton concludes his fascinating essay on the circus poster in The American Circus by admitting that “the circus is something of an anachronism. But it still attracts an audience. And since circus posters are part of the total experience of the circus, they have retained something of their original character and form.” In fact, the modern circus poster, while it surely lacks some of the esthetic greatness of its antecedents, may be the most unchanged aspect of the form. Modern posters still possess that exotic otherness that was once the exclusive selling point of the circus, a sort of “you ain’t seen nothing yet” boasting implied in type and images. The heyday of the poster, when every barn wall, doghouse, and outhouse bore a circus poster, may be behind us, but the eye-popping colors and iconography remain. Seen here: Barnum & Bailey billposters in Brockton, Mass., 1906. Photograph: Frederick Whitman Glasier. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Jacob J. Gayer / National Geographic Society-Corbis

When Xanadu Came to You

Two Ohio boys gaze at a circus billboard in 1931. No image quite sums up the allure of the circus like this one. For more than a century, the day the circus came to town was better than Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one, and running away with the circus was a true childhood ambition. The railroads and the canvas tent made the circus a portable marvel that reached towns and cities across the country, bringing entertainment to people whose idea of fun stopped with the pump organ and bobbing for apples. As Kenneth L. Ames says in his introduction to The American Circus, “There are few significant strands of American life that the circus did not touch or reference in some way.” Image by  © Jacob J. Gayer/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Poster Girl

Nowhere is the otherness of the circus made more explicit than its use of women as wild-animal trainers, a fad that dates from the 19th century and runs well into the next. Here a poster for the Al. G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus promotes “Miss Mabel Stark and Her Ferocious Giant Jungle Tigers,” ca. 1930–35. Poster printed by the Erie Lithograph Company, Erie, Pa. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Mabel Stark

Mabel Stark, shown here with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Chicago in 1922, began her career as an animal trainer in the early decades of the 20th century and was so popular that she had numerous imitators. Indeed, female animal trainers were so popular for several decades that if one was not available for a given performance, a man might have to dress in drag, complete with a woman's wig, and pretend to be the absent female trainer. Photograph: Harry Atwell. Circus World Museum.

Weegee / International Center of Photography-Getty Images

Beauty on the Beast

Rarely do the elements of pop culture link up so beautifully as they do here: the great photographer Weegee shot Marilyn Monroe riding on the back of a pink elephant to mark the opening night of the Ringling Brothers Circus at Madison Square Garden, March 31, 1955. Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) International Center of Photography/Getty Images.

'Circus Polka'

In 1942 the émigré choreographer George Balanchine was invited by Ringling Bros. to devise an elephant ballet for the circus. He in turn commissioned his friend and fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky to compose the music. And so, on April 9, 1942, “Ballet of the Elephants” made its debut, with 50 elephants and 50 dancers performing to Stravinsky’s Circus Polka. Merle Evans, Ringling’s longtime—and excellent—music director, wasn’t fond of the Stravinsky piece; he thought it was too hard for the elephants to dance to. But as Leon Botstein makes clear in his excellent essay on circus music in The American Circus, Evans missed the point: Stravinsky’s music may have been more rhythmically adventurous than most circus music, but the tradition of mixing popular and classical repertoire was long established. The circus was where many people heard their first classical music. Stravinsky wasn’t Rossini, but neither was he out of place. Photograph: Circus World Museum.

Bruce M White / Courtesy of the Bard Graduate Center

Humpty Dumpty Circus

It is a true measure of how ingrained circuses were in American culture at the turn of the last century that circus toys were extremely popular. As a child the American sculptor Alexander Calder made his own circus out of household cast-offs like wire and empty thread spools, but most young circus fans happily made do with miniature circus figures manufactured by the A. Schoenhut Company in Philadelphia. Durably constructed out of wood, cloth, paper, nails, enamel paint, elastic cords, metal, wood composition material, and papier-mâché, the figures in Schoenhut’s Humpty Dumpty Circus are now highly collectible objects, with individual figures selling for anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars each. Andy Yaffee Collection. Courtesy of the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture; New York. Photographer: Bruce White.

Harold M. Lambert / Hulton Archive-Getty Images

Pachyderm Clowns

Two circus elephants wearing giant clown costumes, 1941. It’s a joke that no longer seems so funny. Wild animals, once a mainstay of the circus, have been all but eradicated from the art form, as PETA and other animal-protection groups have railed against the often punishing conditions under which animals live in the circus. Gone are the days when circus menageries were as close as many audiences would ever get to a zoo. Photograph: Harold M. Lambert/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


A clown band, c. 1920. Clowns, those greasepaint anarchists who delight some and terrify others, have their origins in European commedia del arte. Yes, clowning is surely as old as the human race, but the clowns we think of come out of a highly developed tradition. There is the Auguste clown, the lovable bumbler with the big nose and often big shoes to match. There is the white clown, the autocratic enforcer who makes life hell for the Auguste. To that tradition, America introduced the tramp clown, with Emmett Kelly being one of the best and certainly the most famous example. The ultimate sad sack, the tramp clown, should he ever have to list an occupation, would probably put down “sweeping up after the elephants.” Circus World Museum, CWi-2293


Freak shows, now consigned by political correctness to fair midways and carnivals, were once integral parts of the American circus. P.T. Barnum’s “Museum” in lower Manhattan was big on freaks, and when he joined forces with circus impresario James A. Bailey in the late 19th century the freaks came, too. In a pre–mass media age, the circus epitomized “otherness” to most of the folks in the far-flung reaches of America who had never seen a wild animal or even a clown, and freaks of course—shown here in a “Congress of Freaks” at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus in 1924—were the living-breathing embodiment of the other. Photograph: Edward J. Kelty, the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection.

The Face of the Circus

An argument can be made that clowns are the true royalty of the circus. It was certainly true of Frank “Slivers” Oakley, whose face graces the cover of The American Circus and who, at the height of his popularity at the turn of the last century, was reported to have earned as much as $750 a week starring for Barnum & Bailey at a time when other clowns were being paid $35 a week. Oakley was as famous then as Charlie Chaplin would become a few years later. Oakley’s most famous routine was a baseball game in which he played all the positions on the field and the umpire. Photograph: Frederick Whitman Glasier. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.