Following the Trail of a Mysterious Circus

Vacation Circus

Robed figures stand in rows, all facing the same direction, on a platform in the center of a cavernous hall. The hall is well lit, but the seats are all empty. The only words on the photo are “VACATION CIRCUS.”

I stumbled upon this photo in the Library’s online collections and couldn’t stop looking at it. A number of questions came to mind: Who were these people? What were they doing there? And what on earth was a vacation circus?

The Library’s online item record for this photograph showed me that the photo might have been taken between 1915 and 1920, and that it is now part of the George Grantham Bain Collection, which includes the photographic files of a news picture agency. But I found no answers about the event itself.

A second “Vacation Circus” photograph

I searched for “vacation circus” in the main search box on loc.gov and found another photograph, this one of nine people wearing white robes with head coverings, also labeled “VACATION CIRCUS.” The item record told me that it was from the same collection as the first photo and was taken around the same time. However, I still knew no more about these costumed individuals or what brought them together.

When I searched for “vacation circus” among the digitized newspapers in Chronicling America, I hit paydirt. An article from the March 14, 1917 edition of the New York Sun described the 1917 Vacation Circus at some length, and the explanation surprised me: The people in the photographs didn’t look like circus performers because they very likely weren’t.

Detail from “Most of New York’s Business Girls Join the Circus”

According to “Most of New York’s Business Girls Join the Circus,” the clowns in the Vacation Circus would be chosen from an “army of Superlatively Skilful Stenographers, Tumultuously Transcendent Telephone Operators, Blushingly Beautiful Bookkeepers, Correspondingly Cute Cashieresses”–young women working in New York businesses. They were all members of the Vacation Association, and the circus was a fund-raiser for the association.

The last few paragraphs of the article told me that the association started out as “a savings fund for self supporting young women, who could spare moderate sums during the winter months, and lay them aside for use during their summer vacations from work.”

Detail from “Colorful Rooms Planned by Miss Anne Morgan and Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt”

A search for “vacation association” in Chronicling America revealed that the association offered concerts, lunches, and lectures, opened its own holiday resort, and, after a name change, built a towering new clubhouse with luxurious amenities and more than a thousand apartments for “business and professional women.” I noticed that, in most of the articles I read, the wealthy philanthropists who led the association were extensively quoted, while young working women were not, and I found myself wondering if they might have described the group and its work differently.

This investigation answered my questions about the vacation circus photograph, and, better yet, it left me with more questions for further exploration. Teachers can use mystery photographs like these to launch their students on journeys of discovery through the Library’s online collections.

For example, students might browse one of the Library’s Free to Use and Reuse sets and then work in pairs to generate questions and follow research paths in the Library’s collections or in secondary sources. The discovery could even be chunked to be used as “bell ringers” or other lightning activities: on day one, students could select a picture and brainstorm questions, and on day two, pick a question and dig in.

Please share your students’ discoveries and further questions in the comments.

One Comment

  1. SharonM.
    March 23, 2021 at 11:34 am

    SO cool!!Who’d’a thunk it?

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