History of the Circus

Journey through the Magical World of Circus

The journey begins at the Circus Winter Quarters, in Peru, Indiana home to the Circus Hall of Fame established by Ben Wallace in 1892. Circus wagons were repaired, painted and cravings gold leafed. A thousand horses roamed the fields and hundreds of exotic animals were housed and trained in numerous barns. The old timers tell that it was not unusual to see zebras and camels grazing on snow covered ground. Visitors passed by daily just to see what was going on.

Today visitors to the old Winter Quarters become a part of its “past and present” as they journey through the Magical World of Circus.

The Journey continues as the Young and Young at Heart tour the amazing Circus Hall of Fame guided by “Circus Greats.” These are the performers, owners and working men and women who have shaped the American Circus with their talent and skills, their laughter and tears.

The Journey would not be complete without seeing the Museum and the Menagerie. The Museum is filled with exciting and educational exhibits, colorful circus wagons, posters and costume, a fantastic miniature circus with an old fashion street parade. Visit the Menagerie which houses elephants, other exotic animals, horses and ponies. Be assured there is nothing “dusty or dull” on the Journey through the Magical World of Circus at the Circus Hall of Fame.

History of the Circus

In Ancient Rome the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, displays featuring trained animals, jugglers, and acrobats. The circus of Rome is thought to have been influenced by the Egyptians and Greeks, with chariot racing and the exhibition of animals as traditional attractions. The Roman circus consisted of tiers of seats running parallel with the sides of the course, and forming a crescent around one of the ends. In Ancient Rome the circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated.

The first circus in Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Following the fall of Rome, Europe lacked a large and animal rich circus. Itinerant showmen traveled the fair grounds of Europe. Animal trainers and performers traveled between towns and performed at local fairs. Another possible link between the Roman and modern circus could have been bands of Gypsies who appeared in Europe in the 14th century and in Britain from the 15th century bringing with them circus skills and trained animals.

In China’s Eastern Han Dynasty scholar Zhang Heng was one of the first to describe acrobatic theme shows in the royal palaces in his writing “Ode to the Western Capital”. A grand acrobatic show was held by Emperor Wu of Han in 108 BC for foreign guests. Most western text describe the circus as a “Chinese Circus”. The Far East generally see it as a separate performance art called Chinese variety art, and is not believed to be a direct predecessor to “Western Circus” despite many stunts and performances being similar.


The modern concept of a circus as a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, for the exhibition of equestrian, acrobatic, and other performances seems to have existed since the late 18th century. The popularity of the circus in England may be traced to that held by Philip Astley in London, the first performance of his circus is said to have been held on January 9, 1768. One of Astley’s major contributions to the circus was bringing trick horse riding into a ring, though Astley referred to it as the Circle. Later, to suit equestrian acts moving from one circus to another, the diameter of the circus ring was set at at 42 feet (13 m), which is the size ring needed for horses to circle comfortably at full gallop. Astley never called his performances a ‘circus’; that title was thought up by his rival John Hughes, who set up his Royal Circus a short distance from Astley’s ‘Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts’ in Lambeth, London. Astley was followed by Andrew Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Henglers and Sangers celebrated shows in a later generation. In England circuses were often held in purpose built buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display.

Antonio Franconi, the founder of the French circus, is credited by many to be a co-creator of the modern circus, along with Philip Astley.

The first circus building in the United States opened in 1793 in Philadelphia with a performance by John Bill Ricketts. George Washington attended a performance there later that season. In the Americas of the first two decades of the 19th century, The Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities they visited. Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States. In 1825 Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Circus pioneer Dan Rice was probably the most famous circus and clown pre-Civil War, popularizing such expressions as “The One-Horse Show” and “Hey, Rube!”. The American circus was revolutionized by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a travelling combination animal and human oddities, the exhibition of humans as a freakshow or sideshow was thus an American invention. Coup was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus from town to town; a practice that continues today and introduced the first multiple ringed circuses.

In 1840 the equestrian Thomas Cooke returned to England from the United States, bringing with him a circus tent. Three important circus innovators were Italian Giuseppe Chiarini, and Frenchmen Louis Soullier and Jacques Tourniaire, whose early travelling circuses introduced the circus to Latin America, Australia, South East Asia, China, India, South Africa and Russia. Soullier was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus when he returned from his travels in 1866 and Tourniaire was the first to introduce the performing art to Ranga where it became extremely popular. Following Barnum’s death his circus merged with that of James Anthony Bailey, and travelled to Europe as Barnum & Bailey “Greatest Show On Earth” where it toured from 1897 to 1902, impressing other circus owners with its large scale, its touring techniques including the tent and circus train and the combination of circus acts, zoological exhibition and the freak-show. This format was adopted by European circuses at the turn of the 20th century.

The influence of the American circus brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. In arenas too large for speech to be easily audible, the traditional comic dialog of the clown assumed a less prominent place than formerly, while the vastly increased wealth of stage properties relegated to the background the old-fashioned equestrian feats, which were replaced by more ambitious acrobatic performances, and by exhibitions of skill, strength and daring, requiring the employment of immense numbers of performers and often of complicated and expensive machinery. In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a wish for the circus to become ‘the people’s art-form’, given facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized the Soviet circuses. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded, and the high standard of the Russian State circus continues to this day.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the circus began to lose popularity as people became more interested in alternative forms of entertainment. Some circuses have stayed afloat by merging with other circus companies. There are numerous circuses that maintain a mix of animal and human performers, these include Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Moscow State Circus, Circus Krone from Munich, Circus Royale from Australia and the Big Apple Circus. Circus Circus is a Las Vegas circus themed casino and the largest permanent big top in the world also presents human and animal performances.

Cirque Nouveau / New Circus is a performing arts movement that developed in the 1970s, simultaneously in France, Australia the West Coast of the U.S. and the U.K . There are no animals used in this type of circus and influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from Circus History. Examples include Circus Oz forged in Australia in 1977 from SoapBox Circus and New Circus, both founded in the early 70s, The Pickle Family Circus founded in San Francisco in 1975, and more recently Circus Burlesque from the U.K in 1980 and Nofitstate circus in 1984 from Wales, Cirque du Soleil founded in Québec, Canada in 1984, Archaos in 1986, Club Swing in 1994, through to more recent examples such as Québec’s Cirque Éloize, Les Sept Doigts de la Main, and the West African (French Guinea – Guinée) Circus Baobab in the late 90s. The form includes other circus troupes such as the Le Cirque Imaginaire, later renamed Le Cirque Invisible both founded and directed by Victoria Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, the Tiger Lillies, Circus Monoxide, Acrobat, Dislocate, RANGA Circus (now CIRCA), and Throwdown, while The Jim Rose Circus and The Happy Sideshow are both interesting takes on the sideshow.

Swedish nouveau circus company Cirkus Cirkör was founded 1995. U.S. Company PURE Cirkus under the Genre of Cirque Noir,was founded in 2004, and in Northern England, (United Kingdom), combining punk, rap, dance music, comedy, and daring stunts, Skewed Circus delivers “pop-circus” genre entertainment to young urban audiences who have not had the opportunity to visit traditional circuses.

Circuses from China, drawing on Chinese traditions of acrobatics, like the Chinese State Circus are also popular touring acts.

The International Circus Festival of Monaco has been held in Monte Carlo since 1974 and was the first of many international awards for circus performers.


Circus Music, Films and Plays

The atmosphere of the circus has served as a dramatic setting for many musicians and writers. The famous circus theme song is actually called “Entrance of the Gladiators”, and was composed in 1904 by Julius Fučík. Other circus music includes “El Caballero”, “Quality Plus”, “Sunnyland Waltzes”, “The Storming of El Caney”, “Pahjamah”, “Bull Trombone”, “Big Time Boogie”, “Royal Bridesmaid March”, “The Baby Elephant Walk”, “Liberty Bell March”, “Java”, Strauss’s “Radetsky March”, and “Pageant of Progress”.

Plays set in a circus include the 1896 musical The Circus Girl by Lionel Monckton, Polly of the Circus written in 1907 by Margaret Mayo, He Who Gets Slapped written by Russian Leonid Andreyev 1916 and later adapted into on of the first circus films, Caravan written in 1932 by Carl Zuckmayer, the revue Big Top written by Herbert Farjeon in 1942, Top of the Ladder written by Tyrone Gutheris in 1950, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off written by Anthony Newley in 1961, and Barnum with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics and book by Mark Bramble.

Following the First World War circus films became popular; in 1924 He Who Gets Slapped was the first film released by MGM; in 1925 Sally of the Sawdust (remade 1930), Variety, and Vaudeville were produced, followed by The Devil’s Circus in 1926 and The Circus starring Charlie Chaplin, Circus Rookies, 4 Devils; and Laugh Clown Laugh in 1928. German film Salto Mortale about trapeze artists was released in 1930 and remade in the United States and released as Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster in 1956; in 1932 Freaks was released; Charlie Chan at the Circus, Circus (USSR) and The Three Maxiums were released in 1936 and At the Circus starring the Marx Brothers and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man in 1939. Circus films continued to be popular during the Second World War, The Great Profile starring John Barrymore was released in 1940, the animated Disney film Dumbo, Road Show and The Wagons Roll at Night in 1941 and Captive Wild Woman in 1943.

The film Tromba, about a tiger trainer was released in 1948 and in 1952 Cecil B. de Mille’s Oscar winning film The Greatest Show on Earth was first shown. Released in 1953 were Man on a Tightrope and Ingmar Bergman’s Gycklarnas afton released as Sawdust and Tinsel in the United States; Life is a Circus; Ring of Fear; 3 Ring Circus and La strada an Oscar winning film by Federico Fellini about a girl who is sold to a circus strongman; Fellini made a second film set in the circus called The Clowns in 1970. Films about the circus made since 1959 include B-movie Circus of Horrors, musical Billy Rose’s Jumbo, A Tiger Walks a Disney film about a tiger that escapes from the circus and Circus World starring John Wayne.


For more Circus History, visit these sites:

CircusWeb.com Circuses Present and past
HistoryBuff.com Several Circus stories
Under the Big Top – by Dr. Janet Davis
Bringing Circus History to Life – from museumnetwork.com
CircusinAmerica.org – History of the Circus in America

May all your days be circus days!

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