Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus

Although circuses originated in ancient Rome, the modern traveling circus is a largely American institution that owes its roots to the legendary nineteenth century showman P. T. Barnum.

Summary of Event

Ancient Romans Rome, ancient;circuses first used the Latin word circus (“round”) for entertainments held in round arenas. The three elements of the modern circus—ring-shaped arenas, acts, and clowns—were combined first in 1768 by Philip Astley in London. Thomas Pool staged a simple horse and clown show in Philadelphia in August, 1785, but John Bill Ricketts staged the first show in the United States that was called a circus in Philadelphia in April, 1793. Ricketts’s most famous attraction was Jack, the white horse George Washington Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;horse of had ridden in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Barnum, P. T.
Bailey, James A.
[kw]Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus (Apr. 10, 1871)
[kw]Creates the First Modern American Circus, Barnum (Apr. 10, 1871)
[kw]First Modern American Circus, Barnum Creates the (Apr. 10, 1871)
[kw]Modern American Circus, Barnum Creates the First (Apr. 10, 1871)
[kw]American Circus, Barnum Creates the First Modern (Apr. 10, 1871)
[kw]Circus, Barnum Creates the First Modern American (Apr. 10, 1871)
Barnum, P. T.
Bailey, James A.
[g]United States;Apr. 10, 1871: Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus[4560]
[c]Theater;Apr. 10, 1871: Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus[4560]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 10, 1871: Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus[4560]
Astley, Philip
Coup, W. C.
Heth, Joice
Lind, Jenny
Ricketts, John Bill
Stratton, Charles Sherwood

Although the circus in the United States drew from Astley’s innovations and the traditions of Europe, certain features were indigenous. Informative as well as entertaining, early American circuses featured menageries as their central attractions but also usually had troupes of acrobats, jugglers, and minstrels. Early American circuses were wholly rural, traveling by horse Horses;and circuses[Circuses] and wagon as far as fifteen to twenty miles per day between small towns. Traveling tent shows provided entertainment for the rural towns, just as formal Theater;American theaters and variety halls did for the cities.

Circus parades were adopted as the primary means of advertising the arrival of circuses in town during the early nineteenth century. By the mid-1830’s, no fewer than thirty-two circus shows were touring the United States. As cities grew, traveling shows merged with urban horse shows, and during the 1850’s, the entertainments often were staged in city amphitheaters. However, the city shows lacked the excitement of travel and the allure of the tent shows.

The greatest moment in American circus tradition may have occurred on April 10, 1871, in Brooklyn, Brooklyn;circuses New York, when P. T. Barnum invested this ancient tradition with his own spectacular showmanship. A sixty-one-year-old New Englander, Barnum had tried a variety of occupations before becoming a showman and had even edited an abolitionist newspaper. In 1834, he went to New York City and launched his career as a showman by purchasing and exhibiting an African American slave named Joice Heth Heth, Joice , whom he advertised as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;nurse of The woman—who was actually only about seventy-six years old at the time of her death in 1836—was a perfect example of Barnum’s genius at creating public curiosity and excitement. His exploitation of an elderly black woman as a curiosity was also an example of the deeply entrenched racism of the times.

In 1841, Museums;and P. T. Barnum[Barnum] Barnum purchased the American Museum American Museum
New York City;Barnum’s American Museum , an amalgamation of the old Scudder’s Museum and Peale’s Museum that was located in central Manhattan at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Ann Street. This museum, to which Barnum would devote most of his career, was an urban forerunner of the grand circus. Before the days of the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Natural History, curious travelers found little refuge in New York. In Barnum’s establishment they could, for a small admission fee, gaze at stuffed animals from all corners of the world, relics purchased from sea captains returning from Asia and the South Pacific, and a gallery of paintings that Barnum advertised as a national portrait gallery.

Circus poster from the mid-1890’s.

(Library of Congress)

Most famous for his freaks-of-nature exhibits, Barnum transformed the American Museum into a great cultural sideshow. He exhibited a family of “trained fleas” and a “Feejee” mermaid, which was the upper half of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish. He also staged the first American Punch-and-Judy show and offered concerts and temperance lectures. Just before beginning his European tour in 1843, Barnum met the twenty-five-inch-tall, four-year-old dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton Stratton, Charles Sherwood , whom he nicknamed General Tom Thumb Thumb, Tom and hired at a starting weekly salary of three dollars. The American Museum soon became the most popular tourist attraction in New York City.

Barnum’s promotion of the American circus was foreshadowed by his sponsorship of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s Lind, Jenny enormously successful 1850 singing tour. Soon afterward, Barnum received a shipment of exotic animals, which he marched up Broadway, led by five harnessed pairs of Ceylonese elephants pulling a gaudy gilded chariot. Barnum’s Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum American Museum , and Menagerie lasted in New York until 1854. Two separate fires Fires;museums destroyed the museum, but after each fire Barnum rebuilt.

Barnum had decided to retire in 1870, when W. C. Coup Coup, W. C. , a dedicated young circus manager, talked him into forming the “P. T. Barnum Travelling Exhibition and World’s Fair on Wheels,” which began its first tour in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871. Coup also suggested transporting the circus by railroad, enabling it to visit larger towns. Huge crowds flocked to Barnum’s circus, which showed a profit of more than one million dollars in six months. The circus’s popularity soon outgrew its ability to accommodate spectators. Expanding the forty-two-foot-diameter ring would have required retraining all of the animals, so as early as 1872, Barnum added a second ring, and then a third, thereby creating the famous “three-ring circus.” The three rings were surrounded by a hippodrome track, used for displays of horsemanship Horses;and circuses[Circuses] and drama.

Barnum’s expanded show traveled by rail in more than sixty cars and could accommodate twenty thousand spectators. Its gross receipts averaged between one and two million dollars each season. Railroads ran excursions to its performances from all nearby points. In many rural areas of the United States, its appearance was the great event of the year, with its parade and almost inevitable advance guard of elephants.

Barnum’s circus combined virtually all forms of nineteenth century popular entertainment into one show. Each performance began with the Congress of Nations, a theatrical spectacle in which actors impersonated world leaders and acted out great historical events. These “specs,” which typically represented events from ancient history, could last up to thirty minutes and use as many as one thousand actors. One of Barnum’s greatest competitors, Adam Forepaugh Forepaugh, Adam, Sr. , Sr., was famous for elaborate spectacles; his reenactment of the American Revolution was greater than any Barnum produced.

Further competition came from the rise of Buffalo Bill’s Wild Native Americans;in wild west shows[Wild west shows] West Show Cody, William
[p]Cody, William;Wild West Show , in which actors dressed as cowboys and Indians acted out recent frontier battles. Competition among circuses became so fierce that advertising brigades containing several railroad cars of posters and handbills preceded the circus trains themselves by as much as a full week. Advertisements were typically exaggerated and misleading, and circuses not only promoted their own acts but also posted “ratsheets” denouncing their competitors’ acts as frauds.

In 1872, Barnum moved his circus to the Hippotheatron on Fourteenth Street in New York, which he hoped would become the show’s permanent home. Five weeks later, a fire destroyed almost all the animals and the performers’ costumes and equipment. Barnum reopened the show early the following spring but suffered great losses. After another fire struck the circus in 1880, Barnum sought a spectacular attraction. At that time, Barnum’s closest competitor—James A. Bailey’s Great London Circus—featured Columbia, the first baby circus elephant born in captivity. Barnum allegedly offered Bailey $100,000 for it, but Bailey turned down the offer. During the 1881 season, however, the two circuses merged to form Barnum and Bailey’s Circus—“The Greatest Show on Earth.” Having lived with circus performers most of his life, Bailey organized the show as a traveling village that provided for all of its members’ needs.

The attraction that may have been the one most closely associated with Barnum’s circus was an enormous Jumbo the Elephant African elephant that Barnum purchased from the London Zoo for ten thousand dollars in 1882. Billed as the world’s largest elephant, Jumbo was Barnum’s most popular attraction. It was so popular, in fact, that its name added a new word to the English language, as “jumbo” became synonymous with great size. People traveled great distances merely to see Jumbo and spread his name and image throughout North America. Jumbo’s success did not last long, however. After an Ontario performance on September 15, 1885, Jumbo was accidentally killed by a freight train. The circus’s financial loss was devastating. Trainers tried to compensate by teaching surviving elephants to carry black hankies in their trunks and wipe their eyes, as if crying. Jumbo’s stuffed skin and separately reassembled skeleton traveled with the circus for several years but never drew the same crowds.


Bailey took over the circus after Barnum’s death in 1891. After Bailey died in 1906, the five Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin, bought the show and ran it independently until 1919, when they merged it with their own show to form the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. By then, with the development of motion pictures Motion pictures;and circuses[Circuses] and the growing mobility offered by cars, trains, and airplanes, the circus’s popularity diminished because people no longer needed to have the wonders of the world brought to them. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the diminishing number of circuses played only in the largest cities and usually performed in sports arenas, rather than in the circus tents that had been known as “big tops.” By that time, circuses were also losing public favor because of the growing animal rights movement, which vilified animal acts in circuses as exploitative. However, although circuses have declined in popularity in modern culture, circus lore remains a strong part of the American popular culture heritage.

Further Reading

  • Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Exploration of P. T. Barnum’s contributions to American popular culture that examines the cultural context of his mass entertainment.
  • Barnum, Phineas T. The Life of P. T. Barnum. Introduction by Terence Whalen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. One of many editions of Barnum’s autobiography, which he published under different titles and frequently revised.
  • Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Analysis of nineteenth century mass entertainment in the United States that pays special attention to Barnum, who earned notoriety for the often wildly exaggerated and distorted claims he made about his shows and museum displays.
  • Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. A profusely illustrated history of the American circus that contains much information on Barnum.
  • Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. New York: New York University Press, 1997. Colorful history of Barnum’s American Museum in New York City that he twice had to rebuild after fires.
  • Fitzsimons, Raymund. Barnum in London. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. Biography focusing specifically on Barnum’s time in England and how his “Yankee Doodle” character Americanized Great Britain.
  • Harding, Less. Elephant Story: Jumbo and P. T. Barnum Under the Big Top. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. History of the famed African elephant that was briefly the star attraction in Barnum’s traveling circus.
  • Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. Biography focusing on Barnum’s showmanship and business practices.
  • Saxon, A. H. P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. This heavily illustrated scholarly biography offers a critical consideration of Barnum in context with other nineteenth century events.

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