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image shows a large open field with two tents the biggest is in the back on the left a smaller one on the right there is a road lined with people that winds between them that has a parade of animals and performers led by a white horse-drawn carriage carrying a lion with elephants, camels, and horses in the background
Circus parade with lion in cage on wagon, circus tent in background (Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress)

Greatest Show on Earth: The Business of the Early Traveling Circus

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This guest post was authored by 2023 Junior Fellow Hannah Meyer. Hannah is pursuing a graduate degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The circus has been a much-loved source of entertainment in America for generations. Children and adults alike thrill at the sight of tumblers, tightrope walkers, exotic animals, clowns, and more. But have you ever wondered what it takes to get a traveling circus on the road?

The first traveling circuses in the U.S. traveled between small towns and primarily performed in rural areas on plank wooden floors in fields. The use of a canvas tent for performances began in 1825. This innovation made transporting the circus easier and created a more appealing performance space which became known as the “big top.” The Circus Age by Janet M. Davis describes how after the Civil War, when circuses started to travel by railroad, they began to focus their attention on larger cities where they could make more money, rather than stopping at many small towns. Circus proprietors based their routes upon the agricultural seasons, knowing these governed when people had money to spend. In more urban areas, they assessed profitability based on factory conditions and bank clearings. Cities where multiple circuses traveled to were cities that were doing well economically. Annual circus route books chronicled the locations traveled to by circuses as well as who was employed, and notable events of the season, and provided photographs.

Circus impresarios were experts in advertising. P.T. Barnum spent a third of his circus budget on advertisements. Large railroad circuses would send men to put up posters months in advance. These circus posters were bright and colorful. According to Battle for the Big Top, the first circus parade was on May 1, 1837 when a group of circus musicians and two drummers on elephants rode through Albany. Circus parades were used upon arrival in towns for over a century, to drum up excitement for the circus. One newspaper proclaimed “a circus without a parade loses half of its attractiveness.”

old wood wagon with bars and colorful wheels with the words "Hippopotamus from River Nile" in big letters across the top
Historic wagon for the Hippopotamus (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress)

Traveling with a big top was a complicated endeavor, requiring the integration of five types of business: railroad operations, restaurant operations, hotel operations, construction operations and entertainment. Circus employees were crowded into railroad cars. The car that employees slept in was determined by their job and status in the company. Star performers would get their own stateroom whereas male laborers and ballet dancers slept in crowded cars.

The arrival of a circus in town was a monumental event that could shut down schools and workplaces. Shops would have special sales on items for what was known as “Circus Day.” Circus goers were not just excited by the actual performance. People would come early to watch the boss canvasman and his crew set up the big tent. Even after the circus had officially ended, circus goers would stay late to view a concert and watch the big tent be taken down.

Photograph shows Charles S. Stratton ("General Tom Thumb") and his bride Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, alongside her sister Huldah Pierce Warren Bump ("Minnie Warren") and George Washington Morrison ("Commodore") Nutt, entertainers associated with P.T. Barnum, in wedding clothes.
Wedding of Charles S. Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”) to Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. (Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs/Library of Congress)

One of the most famous performers who traveled with the circus was General Tom Thumb. Charles Stratton was discovered by P.T. Barnum at the age of four years old. Barnum advertised Stratton under the name General Tom Thumb, claiming the boy was eleven years old and, from England. Stratton would spend much of the rest of his life touring. A man named Sylvester Bleeker managed Stratton’s international tours and wrote a book describing the management of an international tour that Tom Thumb and his wedding party went on called Gen. Tom Thumb’s Three Years’ Tour Around the World.

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