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The Circus

At the start of the 20th century, the circus reigned as America's most popular public entertainment. Movies were still in their infancy, and people had no radios or televisions to compete with the lively spectacle of the circus.

Circus TicketCircus Ticket
Ringling Brothers Ticket

How did circuses draw huge audiences near the turn of the century?

Barnum and Bailey posterWeeks before a circus performance, thousands of brightly colored posters advertised the show. Bringing a circus on tour required military-like discipline. The first early morning train arriving at the site of a performance brought the cooks and the cookhouse tent. An hour later, as the cooks prepared breakfast, a second train would arrive bearing the big top. Seating for the public arrived on a third train. By 8:30, the final train would arrive carrying the performers.








Two riders perform on horsebackAfter the final circus trains unloaded, a free street parade whipped up public excitement for the upcoming show. In the parade, members of the circus band, wearing plumed helmets, would mount columns of elegant white horses. Circuses in the early 1900s boasted many kinds of exotic animals, but horse acts were often a circus's main attraction. The Ringling brothers once boasted 650 horses in their show. In 1899, the Ringlings instituted a grand 61-horse finale. To fit all those horses into the arena at once, they raised the horses on stages of various heights, forming a gigantic pyramid. A single white Arabian horse stood at the peak of the pyramid.


Poster in German advertises Barnum and Bailey circus At first, European circuses toured America. By the late 1800s, though, American circuses were traveling to Europe. The Barnum & Bailey circus toured England and continental Europe for five years beginning in 1897. However, when Barnum & Bailey returned to the U.S., the Ringling Brothers had claimed the mantle of America's premier circus. The Ringlings bought out Barnum & Bailey in 1907, and the two great circuses eventually merged.



Credits: Cy Young © Bettmann/Corbis; Roller Coaster © Culver Pictures; Barnum & Bailey Poster. Images reproduced with the permission of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY ® and THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH ® are federally registered trademarks and service marks of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc./Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin; Bareback Riders © Culver Pictures; German Barnum & Bailey Poster Images reproduced with the permission of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY ® and THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH ® are federally registered trademarks and service marks of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc./Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin ;


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NetExplorations
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Mass Entertainment
Life in the 1920s
The Environment

These topics correspond to chapters in the Patterns of Interaction series (McDougal Littell, 2005).