Long before radio broadcasts, movies, and television series, the circus was the biggest and greatest entertainment industry in the United States and beyond. Spectators couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of the talented trick-riders, fearless fire-eaters, amazing acrobats, and exotic animals. Since the first circus ring opened to the public the late 1700s, a lot has changed. The performances have evolved greatly over the last 200-plus years and some of the acts of the past might surprise you. Let’s take a look back at the circuses of yesteryear.
See why the strongwomen stole the show.
Philip Astley Is Considered The Father Of The Modern Circus
The modern circus was created by Philip Astley. Born in 1742, Astley’s childhood dream was to work with horses. He made that dream come true by working as a horse trainer during the Seven Years War. After he was discharged, Astley decided to use his talents to imitate the trick-riders he’d grow fascinated by.
Before long, trick-riders grew increasingly popular and were soon performing throughout Europe. Astley admired them from afar, teaching horse-riding by day and practicing his trick-riding by night.
Astley was just getting started.
Acrobats, Jugglers, Rope-Dancers, And Clowns, Oh My!
It wasn’t long before Philip Astley’s talents as a performer outshined his reputation as a teacher. He started performing full time but felt he needed to add some novelty to his shows. Taking a leap of faith, he hired acrobats, jugglers, and rope-dancers to perform in between his riding acts — and the audience loved it.
As time went on, Astley also added clowns to fill the spaces between acts with juggling, rope-dancing, tumbling and even trick-riding of their own. And with that, the modern circus was born and Astley was dubbed "the father."
Philip Astley Opened Amphithéâtre Anglois In Paris In 1782
Philip Astley took his talents to Paris, where he opened the city’s first circus, the Amphithéâtre Anglois, in 1782. That year also saw Astley’s first competitors. Charles Hughes, an equestrian and former member of Astley’s company, opened a rival amphitheater and riding school in London which he named the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.
Meanwhile, equestrian John Bill Ricketts opened the first circus in the United States. Ricketts then went on to open circuses in Canada and Mexico with fellow equestrian Philip Lailson.
Ever wonder how the circus tent came to be? Find out next.
The Circus Comes To The United States
In the early nineteenth century, the United States was still new and developing at a rapid pace. As the American settlers were pushing the frontier to the West, showmen had no choice but to travel light and with speed!
With circuses needing to be transported throughout the United States, it no longer made sense for the acts to perform in the classic wooden structures that had become commonplace. In 1825, circus entrepreneur Joshuah Purdy Brown conducted the first circus held in a canvas tent. Another circus entrepreneur, Hachaliah Bailey, began exhibiting his young African elephant around the country with much success. Soon, he acquired a small fleet of exotic animals and became the first traveling menagerie.
U.S. Circuses Forged Their Own Path
Other farmers took notice of Bailey’s success and decided to go into the traveling-circus-menagerie business, adding more performances throughout the United States.
In the mid-1800s, a group of 135 farmers and menagerie owners came together to create the Zoological Institute. The institute went on to own and operate 13 menageries as well as three circuses, allowing them to corner to the traveling circus business. As the business continued to evolve, it became a very different model from that of European circuses, and instead included a traveling ten-show with a menagerie owned by businessmen.
Multiple Rings Become A Unique Feature Of The American Circus
By 1872, the circus had become the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. The year prior, Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus and quickly became the most popular and successful circus of the times.
Wanting to grow their business even more, the men decided to increase the size of their tent to allow more visitors. However, lengthening the tent meant making the view worse for some audience members. To combat this, an additional ring was added so every audience member would have an unforgettable experience.
The Circus Was Entertainment Everyone Could Enjoy
Circuses have always been largely about visual performance. Because they were largely liberated from language barriers, circuses could easily move about the world and remain appealing to many groups of people. As circus entrepreneurs began to take their shows international, circuses started popping up in Cuba, Brazil, Japan, China, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond.
By the early 1900s, the concept of the circus was commonplace, with circus dynasties popping up left and right.
Up next, meet Rhanee Motie, fire-eating extraordinaire.
Rhanee Motie Was A Fire-Eating Spectacle
Fire eating became a popular circus act in the late 1880s. The act was often considered an entry-level skill but these performers were regarded as equals throughout the circus community. While there were male fire eaters, it was the women who stole the show as they contorted their bodies and donned bedazzled outfits while stunning audiences with their death-defying acts.
Rhanee Motie was one of a handful of well-known female fire eaters. She would use her mouth to spray paraffin into the lighted torches, which were covered in oil. This would cause the torches to ignite in an almost bomb-like manner. Here she is in February 1956, breathing fire in six-foot flames!
Circus Strongmen Were A Popular Attraction
Long before professional bodybuilders showcased their overly-tanned, muscular bodies on stage, there were circus strong men. Strongmen became a popular circus attraction in the 19th century and would try their hardest to differentiate themselves from the others with a slew of strength-showcasing activities. While some would carry baby elephants up ladders, others would break chains with their pectoral muscles.
In this photo taken in 1935, George Challard of Woolwich, London bends an iron bar with his teeth. Challard was known for his ability to bear the weight of a car on his neck!
Strongmen weren’t the only circus performers who showcased their incredible strength.
Strongwomen Were A Popular Attraction Too
Strongmen didn’t get all the glory in the circus. Strongwomen regularly performed feats of strength like barbell lifting, and even human juggling, in circuses throughout the world.
The first strongwoman to gain fame was Josephine Blatt, better known by her stage name Minerva. Rumor has it Minerva once lifted 23 men on a platform in a 3,564-pound hip-and-harness lift. Meanwhile, Miriam Williams (known by her stage name Vulcana) bench pressed 124.5 pounds with her right hand. After she passed away in 1946, a group of Australian women started The Vulcana Women’s Circus in her honor.
Trapeze Acts Became A Prized Attraction
In the early years of the circus, tight-rope dancers were considered to be the stars of the show. These acrobats adapted their art, which would later evolve into one of the most prized attractions of the circus — the trapeze.
The first performers would simply swing and hang from a slack rope, but as their performances evolved, a bar was added and the trapeze was born. The trapeze further changed when French gymnast, Jules Léotard, jumped from one trapeze to another at Paris’s Cirque Napoléon. From then on, Léotard and his “flying trapeze” were the stars of Europe.
Despite circuses’ popularity, performers still found themselves largely marginalized by society.
Circus Performers Were Marginalized
Although the circus drew hundreds of thousands of spectators annually, many circus performers were marginalized, often seen as outcasts. Pictured above is English artist Laura Knight, sketching chorus girls behind the scenes at a circus at Olympia.
Knight was one of the most popular and successful painters in Britain during her life and she was infatuated with and inspired by marginalized individuals and communities. She often sketched and painted circus performers, with her pieces selling for thousands of dollars.
Knight wasn’t the only famous figure interested in the circus — the events drew in celebrities too.
Celebrities Were Often In Attendance
As the circus gained momentum, spectators came from near and far to catch a glimpse of the entertainment. Celebrities were known to be in attendance just as you see them sitting courtside at sporting events today.
In this photo, taken October 15, 1957, actress Vikki Dougan poses with a clown while the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in Los Angeles. Dougan’s first movie role was Back from Eternity, although she was better known for the daring low-cut, backless dresses she often wore.
Ella Freeman Prepares For A Performance
Another figure in the early circus industry was ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Sanger started his career as an animal tamer and his first “troupe” included canaries, hares, and small birds. He taught his troupe to fire tiny cannons and walk tightropes. Sanger’s show proved successful and soon he began performing at private parties before starting a traveling show with his old brothers, John and William.
In this photo taken in 1949, circus horse-ballerina Ella Freeman prepares for a performance. Freeman was a long-time performer in Lord George Sanger’s Circus.
Clowns Were Never Meant To Be A Circus Mainstay
Rather than having the audience wait in silence in between acts, Philip Astley had a clown perform. Other circus entrepreneurs followed suit, although it’s unsure whether or not anyone predicted how popular these performers would become!
Since the days of the first circuses, there have been numerous notable clowns, some of whom have gained international acclaim. Clown culture has evolved to even include its own unique lingo and varying character types. Pictured above are three clowns in full makeup awaiting their circus performance. Nicolai Poliakoff, known as Coco the Clown (left), was one of the most famous clowns of the 20th century.
Coco’s daughter left her mark on the circus industry too.
Olga Kerr Wasn’t Afraid To Get In The Ring With Lions
Nicolai Poliakoff made a name for himself as Coco the Clown, becoming one of the most famous clowns of the 20th century. His career inspired his daughter, Olga, who became a celebrated circus performer herself. She joined Betram Mills where she excelled at acrobatics, high line, and trapeze work.
Olga married Alexander Kerr, an elephant and lion tamer, and the two established their own zoo. Their business venture quickly gained recognition thanks to their quirky attractions such as Bill, the pipe-smoking chimpanzee who would smoke cigarettes gifted by the public. In the photo above, Olga instructs circus lions with the aid of a stool and a stick.
Equestrian Acts Remained A Crowd Favorite Throughout The Mid-1900s
By the nineteenth century, equestrians were still a crowd favorite, but acrobats were becoming increasingly popular. Audiences loved acrobats on horseback, especially the likes of performer John H. Glenroy who was the first to land a somersault on horseback. Not to be overshadowed, floor acrobats pleased audiences far and wide too. Clowns even began taking their shot at acrobatics, with the English clown Little Wheal gaining notoriety for performing 100 consecutive somersaults!
In this photo, 16-year-old Ella Freeman balances on the knee of her partner as they ride around the ring in 1949.
Horses wouldn’t remain popular forever though.
Goodbye Horses, Hello Big Cats
When the circus began, there was an emphasis on equestrian displays. But as automobiles began replacing horses, the animal lost its sheen to audiences. Instead, audiences wanted to see exotic animals, big cats in particular.
By the end of World War I, the traditional equestrian circus as the world knew it was gone, along with its legendary stars. This made room for more animal tamers, like Frank Mogyorosi, to show off their skills. Here is trusting tamer Mogyorosi sticking his head into Leo The Lion’s mouth during his act in 1979.
The circus isn’t all fun. See the horrific tragedy that occurred at one 1940s circus next.
The Hartford Circus Fire Claimed More Than 169 Lives
The Hartford circus fire is considered one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. While the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus was mid-performance, a fire erupted while upwards of 8,000 spectators were inside the big top tent.
The small fire started on the southwest sidewall of the tent and quickly grew until the entire structure was up in flames. Fred Bradna, the ringmaster at the time, urged the crowd to remain calm and exit the tent in an orderly fashion. While the majority of the audience fled to safety, tragically, at least 169 spectators died and over 700 were left injured.
You’re Getting Very Sleepy
Throughout the history of the circus, animals have been an integral part of the show. From dogs and horses to lions and elephants, circuses have enlisted the help of a variety of species of animals throughout the last 150 years.
In this photo, famed hypnotist Karah Khawak puts two crocodiles into a trance during his act at a circus in Munich, Germany. Khawak, who was a former lion-tamer, came from a famous family known for their work with alligators, caimans, rats, tarantulas, scorpions, and snakes.
"The Greatest Show On Earth"
The most famous traditional circus in the United States was undoubtedly Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The traveling circus company was founded in 1871 and was billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth." As the circus traveled from town to town, it was said that their fleet of animals and performers was one-mile long.
Ringling Bros. came to symbolize what the circus meant in America and did its best to modernize itself throughout the years. Sadly, due to weakening attendance, high costs, and ongoing animal rights protests, Ringling Bros. announced their 2017 tour would be their last. The final performance took place at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, ending the company’s 146-year run.