The American Circuses of the Early 20th Century and Their Influences on Society


In the contemporary world where the changing trends and development lead to shifts in the modes of entertainment, circuses have still managed to maintain their existence for the past few centuries. The circus of the United States of America, though late in its inception from those of the Chinese and European Circuses, is reckoned as the trendsetter in many ways for the modern age circus. Features like the inoculation of music in the circuses were never practiced before the experiments made by the American Circuses. In the history of the American circuses, the twentieth century plays a multidimensional and critical role. The paper, after succinctly introducing the vital concepts of the topic and its background, provides a brief history of the American circus before and during the early twentieth century. After discussing the major distinctive elements of the early twentieth century circuses of America, the paper lists and elucidates the reasons responsible for the decline of the American circus in the concerned period. By drawing a comparison between the American circuses and their parallels, the paper attempts to further clarify the unique features of the American circus. By discussing the impacts of the American circuses on the society of the early twentieth century, the paper also extrapolates the power of these circuses in the concerned time period thereby concluding with a neutral note on the positivity and negativity of the early twentieth century and its role in the making and current status of the American Circus.


In order to reach the gist of the topic logically, it is mandatory to first establish a fundamental understanding of the major concepts necessary for the elucidation of the topic.

  • Circus: Circuses are traveling units with a wide range of entertainers. These entertainers may be athletes, acrobats, jugglers and clowns, etc. Apart from the entertainers, the circuses also involve wild animals, mechanical equipment and workers for the arrangement of the arena. As the means of spending leisure time in the past were limited, the circuses provided an eclectic source of entertainment in which both the young and adult people were equally interested.
  • History of Circus: Every well-established practice has a base. The axiom holds its verity for the activity of circuses too. In the older times when people had little entertainment available at their homes, festivals, carnivals and circuses remained the center of their attraction. These circuses, intermittently held at different places, not only provided the natives with a ready source of entertainment but also exposed them to the latest inventions and exotic animals from various parts of the world. It is because of the eclectic nature of the circus that German literary critic Heinz Politzer considered it as ‘a world between’ (Gustafson 36). With the nomadic nature, the circuses picked the traces of cultures from different locations continuously.
  • Early Twentieth Century: The early phase of the twentieth century is considered an era of great changes which are both positive and negative. On one end the United States was considered the world leader after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and on the other hand, the country was facing a time of crisis in the form of the corollaries marked by the world wars, earthquakes and diseases. As more and more people migrated to the United States, the extent of poverty also escalated. The economic crisis did not only lead to the loss of satisfaction among the workers but it also led to social problems like child labor in heavy industries. On one hand, when these problems were increasing, the country was also showing all the signs of scientific development through various inventions. Equally the American nation also showed an amelioration and variety in terms of culture through new genres of music like jazz and new ways of entertainment on television (American Cultural History).
  • American Circus: Circuses have always remained a very rich manifestation of art in the history of America. The history of these circuses is as old as the history of the nation itself. It is because these entertainment activities started shortly after the founding of the country and remained intact in American culture through the various phases till contemporary times. With its earliest inception in Rome, the circuses had traveled to Britain. Sergeant-Major Philip Astley is considered the founder of circuses in Britain. Soon the trend was taken to the British colonies which form contemporary America today. In this effort, John Bill Ricketts is considered as the person who made significant contributions to the spread of circus in the states of America(Circus Web).
  • History of American Circuses: Therefore to understand the variations and ameliorations in the American circuses of the early twentieth century, we need to take a benchmark in the form of the status of these circuses before the onset of the twentieth century. This purpose can be served by the exploration of the circus and its status in the times before the start of the twentieth century. On the basis of chronology, we can broadly divide the circus history into three stages till the twentieth century. These stages are extrapolated as follows,
  • Eighteenth-Century (Early History): Why the eighteenth century is called the early phase of the American circus history is because of the fact that the circus in America did not exist before this era. The first-ever American circus held formally was in the late eighteenth century in Philadelphia. John Bill Ricketts, whose brainchild this project was, later carried the circus to neighboring countries like Canada (Gustafson 36). With this trend, the aspect of mobility was augmented to the circuses in America. Today the very transferability of circuses is considered one of the original attributes of these circuses.
  • Nineteenth-Century: By the start of the nineteenth century, the circuses in America had established certain features which included the participation of acrobats, clowns, aerialist performers and equestrian displays. With the turn of the new century, American circuses like many other bodies showed further augmentation which served to improve the overall entertainment factor about them. Previously confined to the acts and performances of human beings, the nineteenth century introduced the feats of wild and exotic animals (Gustafson 36). Another important development that happened in this century was the augmentation of circus tents. Before the year 1825, the circuses were arranged in temporary wood buildings (Circus World Museum 1). Due to the instability of weather in different places, the tent served as a very useful addition in providing entertainment efficiently throughout the shows. Another significant contribution of this phase was the inception of circus trains as the means of traveling (History Magazine).

Today elephants are a part of almost all the circuses in the United States. The American circuses introduced feats involving elephants in the nineteenth century. The participation of elephants started with the mere exhibition of the animal which led to great profits as the circuses charged a little amount for every spectator who wished to see the animal. It was through Bailey’s successful experimentation with using the elephant that the competing circuses also started to include unusual animals from various parts of the world that further led to the augmentation of menageries in the American circus (History Magazine).

Overall the nineteenth century is not just considered as the phase when circuses were properly established but the very century also witnessed the stronghold of these circuses in the country. According to John W. Frick in his essay ‘Fireworks, Bonfires, Ballrooms and More’, this stronghold of the circuses in America is evident by the fact that around the 1850s most of the spare plots and lots were occasionally utilized for the circuses.

  • Twentieth Century: In the early twentieth century, circuses were established very strongly. According to the information provided by the Circus World Museum, more than a hundred circuses were being arranged in different parts of the country. These circuses were uniquely successful in small towns that had lesser sources of entertainment (2). As time passed the circus not only developed as a strongly established source of entertainment but also expanded in its volume. By the early 1920s, circuses like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey arranged their shows at such a massive level that their tents could cover more than ten thousand spectators and the show required around fourteen acres of land for arrangements. These circuses also carried a range of hundreds of cars and animals (The Circus in America).
  • Features of American Circus in the Early Twentieth Century: Just like any other entity, the American circus also underwent a phase of continuous improvement. This amelioration was evident in the early phase of the twentieth century too. Some of the augmentations that the twentieth century brought to the circuses in America during this time are as follow,
  • Tents: As the circuses had gone through the phase of amelioration in almost every aspect, the tents of the American circuses were also greatly changed in terms of their size. The original tents designed for the circuses were not as big as the big tops of the early twentieth century (Clowns School).
  • Clowning: Clowns have always occupied the status of a circus prerequisite. As a great majority of children are attracted to the circuses by these clowns, they were increasingly emphasized during the early 1900s. The profession of clowning was accepted as art after world war in the year 1918. Realizing the increasing importance and role of these clowns, the big American circuses like Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus not only employed people from within the United States but also hired talented people from across the globe to fill the vacancies of clowns in their circuses

There was no existence of female clowns in American circuses in the early 1900s. The clowns were supposed to look gender-neutral. It was in the latter half of the twentieth century that the feministic make-up of clowns was done to give them a feministic look. According to the studies of the Academy of Performing Arts In Clowning, one of the first women who appeared as a female clown was Peggy Williams. Ms. Williams joined the circus in the latter half of the twentieth century (Clowns School).

  • Costumes: The costumes of performers particularly the costumes of clowns became brightly colored. Although the costumes worn by the performers consisted of bright colors even before this phase, this era marked an inoculation of even brighter and brilliant colors, especially in the case of the costumes of the clowns performing in the circus.
  • The decline of the American Circus in the Early Twentieth Century: Every climax leads to a decline at some point. Therefore the peak of the American circus in the early twentieth century was also reckoned as the beginning of its decline. The decline curve of the American circus kept on becoming steeper and right after the first half of the twentieth century, the circus showed evident signs of catastrophe when two of the biggest circuses Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey performed their last joint show on 16 July 1956 (History Magazine). The failure of these circus giants to keep performing was because of the financial crises caused by a number of factors. It was primarily because of the distraction from the circus caused by the social conditions prevailing in the early 1900s.
  • Reasons for Decline of the American Circus in the Early Twentieth Century: Behind every rise or fall lie certain factors that either initiate or catalyze the process. Similar is the case with the decline of American circuses too. Most of the primary factors that are reckoned as the active forces in bringing the catastrophe of the American circus in the twentieth century were existent in the first half of the century. Some of the major factors for this decline are as follows,
  • Series of Unfortunate Events: There had been a series of unfortunate events going around which made the circus a less important thing for the natives. These events included the incidents like the earthquake in San Francisco, Spanish influenza, the world war and the great depression, etc. All of these misfortunes diverted the attention of people away from the circus thereby becoming a major source of its catastrophe(The Circus in America).
  • World War: In the early twentieth century, the United States was involved in the world war as an active member. Keeping in mind the expanse of war, more and more soldiers were required to enter the battlefield. Many employees of the big circuses left the circuses to join the armed forces. It was as a result of the decline in the number of participants that the two previously big circuses namely Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus merged together to arrange combined shows. (History Magazine). Just as the number of employees left the circus to join the armed forces, a great majority of spectators also left to serve as soldiers. This trend highly discouraged the progress and development of the American circus in the early twentieth century.
  • New and Varied Sources of Entertainment: There is always a latent need for a better thing. Often people become bored of the old sources of entertainment and shift to other sources. For instance, many of the individuals who were previously interested in Radio are now more interested in entertaining themselves through Television. Therefore, the same thing happened with the American circuses too which catalyzed their process of decline. With other sources of entertainment coming up, the circus was snatched its due share of spectators. One such source of entertainment included ‘The Jazz Singer’. As a result, it was in the year 1911 that American history saw the peak of its circus life (The Circus in America) and later moved in the direction of decline. Some other sources of entertainment included the invention of the Jukebox with twenty-four songs in 1905 and the creation of the first animated cartoon in 1906 (Zach and Blake). In the same way the decade of the 1910s, also known as the Ballroom decade, also flourished the trend of dancing. Different restaurants and bars also provided an augmented entertainment of dancing floors which greatly attracted a considerable majority of Americans (American Cultural History).
  • Improved Transportation: During the early 1900s, the Americans had better systems of transportation. This made it easier for the people in town to travel to the cities and indulge in other activities to pass their leisure hours. As a direct corollary, their participation as spectators in the circuses decreased thereby narrowing down the scope of the American circus. By the year 1908, the companies like Ford and General Motors Corp. were already working on new and improved projects for making transportation even easier and faster (Circus in America).
  • Improved Communication: By the year 1902, the US Navy had already installed the radiotelephone aboard the ships thereby suggesting its availability to the public too. As the means of communication showed increased, the attraction of gaining information from the circuses faded away.
  • Scientific Progress: With new inventions coming in every day, the attention of the Native Americans was shifted to them because these inventions not only captured their interests but also provided the people with an opportunity to make a better living by using and mastering certain instruments and machines. For instance the inventions of cameras and typewriters that were immediately made available to the public after their inventions attracted a huge number of people in even changing their previously adopted professions (Zach & Blake).
  • Sports: With new progress in the world of sports, the distraction from the American circuses was ever-increasing. People were more interested in physically being a part of the activities. It was in 1903 that the Baseball World Series began in the United States which further marred the prospects of the early twentieth century’s American circus (Cyber Essays). The increasing number of Baseball fans in the first few years of the twentieth century also suggests the decline of fans of circuses. According to the research of Zach and Blake, the professional baseball teams that had a fan body of 3.5 million people in the year 1902 had become so famous that their number of fans augmented to 6.5 million by 1911.
  • Increasing Criticism: Before the start of the twentieth century, the American circuses also consisted of people with deformities and disabilities as mere pieces for exhibitions. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, this part of the American circus was greatly criticized by the public. This increasing criticism by the public was primarily because of their growing awareness through the publications that openly targeted the circuses for the violation of morality and humanitarianism (Frick). The whole process worked as a catalyzer for the circus’s fall.
  • Important Circus of the Early Twentieth Century: The Ringling Brothers, established in the latter half of the nineteenth century had managed to become one of the biggest circuses on earth in the first half of the twentieth century. As a result of the tremendous success of this circus within and outside the United States, the circus was given the title of World’s Greatest Show. By acquiring its competitor Barnum and Bailey in 1907, the Ringling Brothers captured a greater share of the market and also proved a business leader in the field (Circus in America).
  • Parallels of American Circus: The American circus of the twentieth century has various comparables in terms of geographic location and time. Also throughout history, the American circuses have faced challenges in different forms posed by different competitors which can also be reckoned as parallels to the circuses. On one hand, being the parallels, certain activities also posed a constant threat to the power and stronghold of the circuses in American society. Such conflicting forces can be pointed out in three ways. On one hand, all the circuses going around in the world were parallels to the American circuses. On the other hand, all the entertainment activities that adopted similar ways of entertainment are also considered parallels and competitors of the circus in America. Looking from an even different perspective, the American circus of a different time period also serves as a parallel to the twentieth-century American circus.
  • Australian Circus: There are various commonalities between the American and Australian circuses. Particularly, both show the same origins and inspirations. Mark St Leon believes that the major inspiration for both the circuses was Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. However, the American circus developed a great deal and further influenced the Australian Circuses (1). In the early twentieth century, the Australian circuses showed a great trend inspired by the American circuses. The reason behind the influence of American circuses on those of Australia is primarily the increasing number of American circuses’ tours to Australia in the late nineteenth century. Many American circuses like Cooper, Bailey & Co and Sells Brothers visited almost every major city of Australia thereby leaving their footprints for the native circus. The process was further enhanced by the visits of Australian circuses like Melville’s Australian Circus to the United Stated during the same period (Leon 2).
  • English and Asian Circuses: The American circuses developed in such a way that even after being the successor of the long-standing circuses taking place in Chins and Britain, the American circus augmented certain attributes which distinguished it from its counterparts. Although the participation of animals and athletes in the American circus was the prolongation of the traditional circus practices, the inoculation of song and dance in the American circus was something that the other circuses had not practiced before. Freak shows of the contemporary circuses are also an element added by the American circus. These shows involved unusual displays of human talents.

One commonality between the European and American circuses is that during the early years of the twentieth century both the circuses were traveling far and wide across the globe to arrange shows in order to capture audiences and profit from a broader market (Australian Museums and Galleries Online).

  • Russian Circuses: There lies a fundamental difference between the Russian and American circuses in the context of endorsement issues. During the year 1919, the Russian circuses were nationalized after the government realized the importance of such activities and their potential as a lucrative business and ideology carrier. In order to further hone the performances of these circuses, the State University of Circus and Variety Arts was established that specifically aimed at training the performers. This endorsement by the government greatly sharpened the Russian circus in the early twentieth century which made it a popular source of entertainment. Contrastively, the circuses in America remained privately owned and one of the primary causes of the decline of circuses in America was the inability of the owners to survive the financial losses (Global Oneness).
  • French and German Circuses: French and German circuses like the circuses of Russia continue to stick by the long-standing traditions of circus in which the animals form an important part as they used to do in the past. Contrastively more and more American circuses are moving away from the use of animals in their feats and performances (Bouissac 8). In this regard, the example of the Royal Circus of America is worth mentioning. The Royal Circus does not include a single animal as a part of its performances. The slogan of this circus is “We are animal-free” (The Great American Royal Circus).
  • Minstrels, Radio and Television: Starting from the traditional American circuses, when the major competitors and parallels were minstrel shows, Tom shows, occasional touring stage shows and vaudeville, the major competitors of the American circus in the twentieth century included the entities like television, radio and theme parks (Sugarman 438). The early competitors did not greatly influence the spectators of the American circus to a great deal because the minstrels and stage show even after being very powerful lacked the spirit of the circuses in terms of the eclectic items, participants and colors. However, the competitors of the early twentieth century provided almost all the entertaining features of the circuses. Although the radios did not provide graphic and visual entertainment, the spread of television did the job. Both the televisions and circuses had a number of things in common. They included the availability of graphic and visual entertainment, interest for young and adults alike and exposure of the audience to the trends and cultures of the other countries. In many ways, television surpassed the attractiveness of circuses. For instance, the television did not involve too much physical cost and made entertainment available at doorsteps.
  • Contemporary American circuses: In the context of parallelizing the American circus of the twentieth century with its counterparts, it is equally important to compare the twentieth-century American circus with the American circus of contemporary times. Apart from the general similarities, some of the major distinctions between these two circuses are as follows,
  • Animals as a part of the Circus: One major distinction that lies between the 1900s American circus and contemporary American circus is the variability in the use of animals as a part of performances. Previously a great number of animals from around the world were captured and either exhibited or tamed to perform feats. Today’s American circuses pay little importance to this element. The fading trend of using animals is primarily because of three reasons. The first reason is the rising concern for animal rights. As different animal welfare organizations advocate against the captivity of wild animals, the circuses do not want to take the risks of marring their reputation by increasing the participation of animals in performances. The second reason is that the presence of wild animals in circuses raises the concern for public safety. Although the animals are tamed, they are after all wild and when set free during the performances, they can easily reach and harm the spectators (In Defence of Animals Org.). The last reason is the loss of necessity for keeping the animals. With the televisions available at every home and zoos in every city of America, the once exotic animals are no more unique to the audience. Since the spectators already have seen and learned about almost all the animals through various wildlife channels, print media and the internet, the participation of animals does not work as an attraction for the majority of the spectators.
  • Support of Government and Non-Governmental Organizational Bodies: Unlike the early twentieth century circuses, today the American circuses are supported by organizations that train young athletes and performers in mastering their skills for better and adept performance. The Royal Circus is one such circus that was established by the grants of government, individual and corporate contributions (The Great American Royal Circus). Today, as a result of the decline of circuses witnessed in past, different organizations and associations are made to ensure the persistence of circuses as a unique cultural activity. One such organization is the Circus Art Forum.
  • Advertising Opportunities and Channels: Unlike the publicity resources available to the early twentieth century circuses, the advertising channels of the modern age circuses are vast and the circuses can reach out to a greater number of people through media before the actual date of the show.
  • Formal Teams of Choreographers: The contemporary circuses also show choreography, sophisticated stage direction and better safety standards unlike in the past (Bouissac 9).
  • Imaginary Circuses: Based on the issues of time and comfort, a distinct type of circus known as the imaginary circus has evolved. These circuses are based on real-life circuses but are not performed live in front of the spectators (Tait 5). Such circuses did not exist in the early twentieth century.
  • Participation Levels of Women and Children: Another marked feature of the contemporary American circuses that separates them from early twentieth-century circuses is the increased participation of women and children. Today women are a part of the American circuses in every capacity starting from the athletes to the clowns.
  • American Circus and the Society: Circus is an activity involving human beings which makes it directly coalesced with society. Paul Bouissac in his paper ‘Timeless Circus in Times of Change’ brings in notice the viewpoint of Carmeli who believed that culture and circus are inseparable as the latter takes place within a particular culture. Therefore the circuses display the nuances of the culture prevailing in the society however the ways of the display are different. For instance, the culture can be depicted in the dialogues used during the feats or even in the dresses used by the performers. In turn, these culture-inspired attributes directly influence the audience of the non-native origins as the circuses travel to the far ends of the world. One such example is that of Russian Circuses that incorporated their ideologies in their circuses massively. These ideologies were not addressed but implied in a very subtle fashion as the Russian circus traveled to the western countries during the cold war era (6).
  • Influences of American Circus on the Society: Although there is less number of studies about the influence of the American circus on society during the early twentieth century, the progress and changing patterns of the country suggest the role of the circus in the process. Some of the influences which appear as the direct corollary of the American Circuses are as follows,
  • Cultural Practices: Just like information, circuses are conducive to the flow of various cultural arts from various parts of the world. Tattoos are often considered one of the attributive practices of the United States. But many historians believe that the art of making tattoos on the body was introduced in the United States through circuses. It was in one of the American circuses that James O’Connel, a man with a tattooed body was displayed as a part of the show in the early twentieth century. Later the first American woman with a tattooed body appeared in the American circuses who was claimed to be the first and only tattooed woman. It was after these pioneers that the tattoo culture was triggered across American society and at one stage became a fad. If traced the early history of tattoos, we find the European circus that displayed a Polynesian boy with a tattooed body for the first time in circuses (Tattoo Archive).
  • Exposure: As discussed above, the American circuses had long started the practice of traveling to the far ends of the world. With the journeys of the American circus’s participants across the globe, it was evident that these people had learned a new and varied set of knowledge and had also acquired traces of culture from different parts of the world. The return of these participants to the country did not only mean the return of the individuals but also the transfer of cultural traces from different parts of the world. Cultural and informational transfers like these would have helped in broadening the approach of the whole society. Similarly, the very participants also acted as the representatives of the American nation in the other parts of the world thereby increasing the exposure of those people.
  • Knowledge: The circuses more than providing entertainment also provided different sorts of knowledge to the natives. In the early twentieth century when transportation and communication means had been improved but were not in the reach of all the people (especially the people from smaller towns), the circuses provided a reflection of the other parts of the world. Also with the introduction of exotic animals, the circuses provided a chance of exposing people to the attributes of other parts of the world.
  • Language: Language is also an important tool to detect the impact of American circuses on society. The words are used by human beings and often they are shaped differently by them. For instance, the slang that is used in different parts of the world is shared and understood within those parts and does not have the status of the formal language part. Different slangs are particular to different organizations and locations. Therefore, in the case of the American circuses too, much slang was created by the circus people. Primarily meant to be used among the participants of the circus, this slang was proliferated in society too. Today most circus-specific slang is understood and even used by common Americans. Some of the American Circus slangs are Aba-daba (Any dessert served in the cookhouse), Alfalfa (Paper money), Back Door (Performers’ entrance to the big top) and Gag (A short clown trick that is over too quickly to be an act of its own), etc (Blue Ridge Online Sales).
  • Influence of American Society on American Circuses: No single phenomenon that involves human beings as its participants is devoid of the traces left by human society. The same is the case with the circuses too. Just like the American society is greatly influenced by the trends introduced in American circuses, the society of the early 1900s also influenced the circus in return. The inoculation of literature and the latest music in the American circus shows the tendency of the circus itself to be influenced by the surroundings. It was because of the development of the society around that the circuses in America developed the latest attractions for the spectators thereby showing the signs of being influenced by society. Similarly, the reason why the female clowns were not a part of the American circus in the early twentieth century is also because of the societal stereotypes prevailing in the past.


The early phase of the twentieth century is significant in many ways for the history of American circuses. By this time society had been introduced to newer ways of traveling making the mobility of people as well as circuses easier than before. Considering the status of the American circus in the twentieth century, it is evident that the early 1900s provided some of the greatest circuses of all time. Comparing the pre-twentieth century era of the American circus with the early phase of the twentieth century provides us many reasons to believe why the concerned phase was called the golden age of the American circus. The circus during this time not only enhanced its quality by improving the material stuff like tents but also flourished in honing the performers. Apart from this, the circus of the twentieth century also experienced an expanse in its geographic growth as the big American circuses explored a greater number of geographic regions than ever before. Drawing a comparison between the American circuses with the other circuses of the early twentieth century proves the influence of the former on the latter. Although some of the circuses did show better signs of development, the American circuses of the early 1900s still enjoyed the position of one of the trendsetters. Even the older circuses took inspiration from the innovative ideas of the American circuses and later implemented them in their country’s circuses. Culture influences the practices going on in society. In the case of the American circus, the flow of impact was not unilateral but bilateral. Many of the attributes (like tattooing the body) in American Culture come as a legacy of the circuses in the early part of the twentieth century. The twentieth century did witness the decline of the American circus but it was not because of the failure of the circus to provide the people with quality entertainment. Contrastively it was the circumstances prevailing at that time as well as the scientific development that caused the distraction of people’s attention from the circuses. However, the importance of the early twentieth century in the overall development of circus history cannot be denied as many of the remains of the contemporary circus are direct corollaries of the ideas burgeoned in the early years of the twentieth-century America.


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