Introduction: The Circus: Part 1 (04:40)
In the 19th century, the circus traveled the country and gave people a break from their daily lives. People recall seeing the spectacular event decades ago. (Credits)
Phineas Taylor Barnum (04:33)
On April 10, 1871, revelers flocked to Brooklyn, New York to witness the most elaborate entertainment spectacle ever displayed in the United States. It included acrobats, human oddities, and wildlife. Its owner was one of the biggest celebrities of the 19th century.
Barnum's American Museum (03:14)
P.T. Barnum took over a fading collection of natural history exhibits in lower Manhattan in 1841. The revamped business showcased theater, exotic animals, gymnasts, and magicians. Notably, he popularized circus freaks. Some 42 million visited before the museum burned down in 1868.
Traveling Circus (04:21)
Up-and-coming showmen Dan Costello and William Cameron Coup wrote to Barnum in 1870, asking him to invest in their traveling circus. Barnum signed on and the show hit the road following a successful run in Brooklyn. The venture was enormously profitable.
Early American Circuses (05:06)
The first American circus was launched in Philadelphia in 1793 by British equestrian John Bill Ricketts. His show included trick riding, clowns and rope walking, establishing the template for future circuses. The traveling tent show was born in 1825.
Morality and Menageries (02:27)
Church leaders disapproved of “sinful” circus entertainment. Others complained about a criminal element that traveled with the circus and skimpy outfits worn by performers. The addition of a small menagerie by a New York showman in 1828 helped to squash some objections.
Evolution of Circus Staples (05:09)
Early tent shows were modest affairs, featuring a dozen or so performers. Clowns of the time spoke and sang topical songs. Circus acts grew more perilous as tents grew bigger. Frenchman Jules Leotard pioneered the trapeze act, which would become synonymous with the circus.
Rail Travel Transforms Circus (06:13)
The construction of the first transcontinental railroad capped a frenetic era of railroad construction. Barnum and Coup recognized the potential to make larger profits by putting their circus on rails. Their second season of reached Minneapolis and included 146 stops in 1872.
How Circus Animals Were Obtained (04:13)
Many circus owners obtained their animal stock from German merchant Carl Hagenbeck. Trappers focused on capturing young animals, which were easier to handle, but a great many died before reaching their destinations. Circuses were the only place average Americans could see exotic wildlife in the 1800s.
Greatest Show on Earth (07:50)
Barnum’s big top grew so large at that patrons would leave their seats for a better view, creating pandemonium. To restore order, Costello proposed having two rings of simultaneous entertainment. Barnum placed an emphasis on human oddity that was greatly emulated by competitors.
Running Away with the Circus (03:09)
Many joined the circus because it offered opportunities for people who were outsiders in their own communities. The circus became a symbol for leaving one’s everyday existence in the pursuit of one’s wildest dreams.
News Rival for Barnum (03:23)
Adam Forepaugh made a fortune selling cavalry mounts to the Union Army during the Civil War and later took part ownership of a circus after its owner could not cover a debt. In 1874, he copied Barnum by adding a second ring and vastly exaggerating his lineup.
Bailey Travels the Globe (06:47)
Runaway James Anthony McGinnis worked as a bellboy when he convinced a circus ad man to take him on as an apprentice. He took the man’s surname and rose through the ranks. He started a circus with James Cooper and had success traveling the South Pacific.
Circus with Lights (03:00)
Bailey returned to a country in the grip of momentous changes. He capitalized on this period of technological innovation by illuminating his circus before any city in America had a system of electric street lighting. The lights and his generator were attractions unto themselves.
Barnum and Bailey Join Forces (04:11)
Bailey scored a major marketing coup with what he claimed was the first elephant born in the West since the Roman Empire. Barnum reportedly wired him an offer of $100,000 for the calf, but this may have been an apocryphal story to publicize their decision to merge circuses.
Circus Comes to Town (06:17)
Circus day was a special occasion, akin to a holiday that came once a year. Citizens would gather at dawn to await the train’s arrival on the outskirts of town and marvel as an army of elephants, clowns, and other performers paraded through town.
Combined Circus and Work Conditions (02:53)
Barnum and Bailey debuted their combined circus, which now had three rings, at Madison Square Garden. Circus moguls made huge profits because they paid very little and their industry was unregulated. Workers were injured or killed performing dangerous work every year, and crews were segregated.
Circus Titans Do Battle (03:32)
Barnum and Bailey’s biggest concern in 1881 was Forepaugh. The rival circuses played 38 cities in common over the summer, with both sides taking shots at each other in the so-called “rat sheets.” Forepaugh’s biggest coup was the creation of the first truly giant opening pageant.
Popular Pachyderms (08:57)
Barnum made the most rewarding purchase of his career in the winter of 1882, buying Jumbo the elephant from the London Zoological Society for $10,000. He was a male African elephant, making him larger than the Asian elephants that were typically on display at American circuses.
Ethnological Congress of Heathen Races (03:22)
Barnum contacted consuls around the world in 1882, hoping to create a display of “all the uncivilized races in existence.” He displayed exotic foreigners in the menagerie section of his circus. At least one person, an indigenous Australian named Tambo Tambo, was brought to America against his will.
Barnum-Forepaugh Truce (06:06)
Bailey took a leave of absence in the spring of 1885. Barnum’s profits began to sag, and he temporarily joined forces with Forepaugh for a four-ring circus. Five sons of a poor, immigrant harness maker started a one-man wagon show that would soon rival them.
Rise of Ringling Brothers (07:25)
There were 32 circuses touring America in 1882 and nearly 50 by 1884. Among the newcomers were five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringling Brothers parlayed a modest traveling musical show into a small traveling circus that grew steadily before going on rails in 1990.
Circus Moguls Die (03:19)
In early 1890, Forepaugh caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died at home in Philadelphia on Jan. 22. Barnum suffered a major stroke in November of that year and died the following April. He was remembered on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
Credits: The Circus: Part 1 (01:17)
Credits: The Circus: Part 1
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