The Greatest Show on Earth!

Poster for the Sells Brothers Circus depicting a parade of circus performers, via Ohio Memory
Poster for the Sells Brothers Circus depicting a parade of circus performers, via Ohio Memory

Circuses have been entertaining people all over the world for thousands of years. The modern circus, comprised of a traveling group of performers that might include clowns, trained animals, trapeze artists, musicians and tightrope walkers, was established in 18th century England. The circus made its American debut in 1793 when Englishman John Bill Rickets held his first show in Philadelphia. From there, with the help of Phineas T. Barnum, the American circus took on an identity all its own, becoming bigger, louder and more sensational than its European counterparts.

From "Barnum's First Freaks: Originals of the Early Side-Show" (New York Tribune, May 22, 1904) via Chronicling America
From “Barnum’s First Freaks: Originals of the Early Side-Show” (New-York Tribune, May 22, 1904) via Chronicling America
From the Daily Cairo Bulletin, September 15, 1880. Via Chronicling America
From the Daily Cairo Bulletin, September 15, 1880. Via Chronicling America

 

One distinctive element of the American circus that was developed by P.T. Barnum is the “freak show” or “sideshow” which featured people with biological rarities. According to the May 22, 1904 issue of the New-York Tribune, “Barnum’s First Freaks” included General Tom Thumb, the Baltimore Giant and a set of Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. Barnum was also the first to extensively use the press to promote his circus–daysbefore the circus would arrive, advertisements promising a show “Ten Times Greater and Better than any other” would appear, building the locals’ excitement about the upcoming festivities.

The state of Ohio made several important contributions to the history of the American circus. In 1852, construction on the Spalding and Rogers Floating Palace, a showboat that toured the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers until just after the end of the Civil War, was completed in Cincinnati at a cost of $42,000. Twenty years later, in 1872, P.T. Barnum became the first to acquire circus-owned railroad cars. The J.M Gill Car Company of Columbus, Ohio, manufactured these cars, and Barnum rolled out of Columbus with his own fleet, making circus travel much easier.

The Sells Brothers Circus started in Ohio as well. Established in 1872, the former auctioneers’ circus was at first comprised of 33 wagons and cages pulled by 130 horses. The troupe wintered in Columbus (the family was from Franklin County), and it became one of the largest circuses in the world. Ohio Memory has several items depicting their circus, including a photograph of one of their circus trains and one of their performers.

Young circus performers, ca. 1870. Via Ohio Memory
Young circus performers, ca. 1870. Via Ohio Memory

Of course, since the circus traveled to communities all over Ohio, every town has their own stories to tell about the Greatest Show on Earth. The Mount Vernon Democratic Banner, for example, reports that “‘Circus Day’” is “the big holiday for which young and old impatiently wait” (July 22, 1919, Image 5, col. 3). The article continues: “The very name of the great new circus—Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey combined—has been sufficient to arouse far more interest than has ever before been shown in the coming of any amusement enterprise.”

Want to learn more about this American pastime? Explore Chronicling America and Ohio Memory to see news reports, advertisements and images from the circuses of yesteryear. For tips on how to search Chronicling America, click here to view our Circus Subject Guide.

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Thanks to Jenni Salamon, Project Coordinator for NDNP-OH, for this week’s post!

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