Correction: Because of a copy editing error, an earlier version of this piece misstated that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Washington in 1917. Ringling Bros. owned both circuses at that time, but they did not combine operations until 1919. In 1917, it was the Ringling Bros. Circus that performed in Washington.
On May 14, 1917, the Ringling Bros. Circus descended upon the nation’s capital on four trains stretching more than a mile. The Washington Post reported that a crowd of about 30,000 people gathered at the show grounds at 15th and H streets to watch the construction of the multi-acre tented city, which housed 1,370 performers and laborers, more than 1,000 wild animals, 735 horses and 41 elephants for the two-day stand. The big top could hold more than 10,000 people for a single performance. Nearly 100 years later, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is staging its final shows in Washington this weekend, and then, the storied “Greatest Show on Earth” will shutter forever in May. If you want to understand this history, and the future of the American circus, be wary of these common refrains.
Since Ringling Bros. announced its closure in January and the Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy last year, cultural observers have issued grim prognostications about the death of the American circus. “Without sugarcoating it, let’s accept the fact that the circus will not survive our generation unless the state comes to its rescue,” journalist Preetam Kaushik wrote for the Huffington Post. Author Naomi Schaefer Riley opined on “what the death of the circus means for today’s kids.”
The advance postmortem is nothing new. On July 16, 1956, Ringling Bros. performed its last show under a canvas tent, deciding to move to indoor arenas to reduce its labor force and transportation costs. The New York Times observed, “The big top, furled forever, started its funeral ride today.”
But the impending death of the circus has been greatly exaggerated. Although the biggest productions have had trouble attracting the large audiences they need to support themselves, smaller circuses are flourishing. Cirque du Soleil, the highly profitable Montreal-based one-ring show, is expanding in the United States. Other one-ring shows, such as Circus Flora and the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, are still going strong. As a bellwether of the future, youth circuses are booming. According to the American Youth Circus Organization, there are 250 circus education programs nationwide, with growth projected at 10 new programs per year.
People began to use “circus” as a metaphor for extraordinary disorder during the Gilded Age, when American shows ballooned in size like other modern big businesses. The turning point came in 1881, after James A. Bailey merged his operations with P.T. Barnum and other partners: To increase the novelty of their combined circus, the impresarios added a ring, an outer track for chariot races and two stages for even more constant activity. Audiences were dazzled, but they complained that it was “too big to see at once.”
On “Circus Day,” towns were flooded with “strangers,” an event just as chaotic as the three-ring show. Fights erupted, pocketbooks and horses were stolen and restless residents occasionally “ran away” with the circus troupe.
The metaphor stuck. When O.J. Simpson’s murder trial became an all-channels sensation in 1995, critics declared it a circus. During the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign, Showtime enshrined the metaphor into a hit show, “The Circus.”
Yet the circus itself has always been tightly organized. The movement of people, animals and supplies across the country by railroad necessitates incredible discipline and punctuality. On multiple occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Army followed circuses to learn “up to date methods of moving men, animals and baggage.”
On July 6, 1944, circus discipline saved thousands of lives. The Ringling Bros. tent caught fire, and, because it had been waterproofed with a volatile mix of paraffin and gasoline, within minutes it was engulfed in flames. Tragically, 167 people died. But more than 7,000 people lived, owing to a carefully orchestrated disaster response. Band director Merle Evans immediately began playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the show’s designated distress call, which mobilized employees to clear the audience from the burning big top.
Kenneth Feld, whose family owns the Ringling Bros. circus, cited confrontations with animal rights activists as a major reason for shutting down. In the past five years, dozens of U.S. cities have banned wild animal exhibitions, as well as the bullhook, which is used to train and guide performing elephants. In 2014, the Feld family prevailed in a 14-year legal fight with animal rights groups over the treatment of its elephants; still, Ringling Bros. bowed to continued pressure and the next year announced the retirement of its pachyderms.
One might conclude that these clashes are a product of 21st-century sensibilities. Yet 19th-century animal advocates readily confronted suspected cases of animal cruelty at the circus. In 1873, officers with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals questioned Barnum’s circus about the use of the bullhook, but were reassured after finding “no marks” on the elephant.
In the early 20th century, some animal advocates began to reject captivity and circus animal performances wholesale. In 1918, the Jack London Club, named in honor of the late author, condemned trained-animal acts and staged walkouts from circus performances. In 1925, circus owner John Ringling seized on what appeared to be a cultural shift and temporarily banned big-cat cage acts, which he had long disliked because they were difficult to transport. But no other circus joined him, and Ringling soon brought the big cats back into the ring.
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was apprehensive when he met the showman Phineas Taylor Barnum for the first time in 1851: “I expected to see a monster — part lion, part elephant, and mixture of rhinoceros and tiger.” A museum owner and circus impresario, Barnum profited mightily from his public hoaxes, such as “the Feejee Mermaid,” a dried monkey head and torso attached to a fish, and books, such as “Humbugs of the World.” To this day, people assume that Barnum concluded, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Yet Barnum never uttered the phrase that has been so famously attributed to him. Biographer Arthur Saxon observes that although Barnum loved pranks, even at his own expense, he always considered his audience to be in on the joke. For instance, after he pounced on an opportunity to purchase an extraordinary “cherry-colored cat,” sight unseen, he quickly realized he had been duped: The cat was black. Nonetheless, the seller’s witty response pleased him: “No sir, some cherries are black.” Barnum displayed the cat with great fanfare, and audiences delighted in discovering and keeping Barnum’s secret.
Barnum saw himself as a respectable community leader and a cultural broker of “the show business”: “As a general thing I have not ‘duped the world’ nor attempted to do so. . . . I have generally given people the worth of their money twice told.” A convert to Universalism, he became a passionate temperance advocate and supported women’s rights and abolitionism. He also proved to be an honest and effective politician. Barnum served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1865 to 1867, and he was elected mayor of Bridgeport in 1875. Generous with his fortune, Barnum was a founding trustee of Tufts University and endowed an expansive museum of natural history, which exhibited the stuffed hide of his most famous circus animal, Jumbo the Elephant, the university’s mascot.
The Roman poet Juvenal wrote derisively about “bread and circuses” as a form of placation and escapism during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the first century. Centuries later, Ernest Hemingway reflected that the circus “is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.” During the Great Recession, Shrine Circus promoter Paul Leavy commented on the show’s appeal, “I say it’s escapism.”
Yet the circus, rather than a mere diversion, has celebrated the realities of the world. The circus was at times the first place that Americans encountered new technology. In 1879, Bailey became the first impresario to illuminate his big top with an electric generator. In 1905, Barnum & Bailey made automobiles fly in “The Dip of Death,” featuring a female driver hurtling off a platform under the big top and performing looping automotive convolutions in midair.
Circuses staged spectacular reenactments of current events, including battle scenes from the Spanish-American War and important peace treaty signings. When the Ringling Bros. rolled into Washington in 1917, the show’s courier beckoned audiences to the “Ringling Bros. University of Natural History.” Writer Hamlin Garland recalled the cultural power of the circus during his childhood in rural Wisconsin in the 1870s: “In one day — in a part of one day — we gained a thousand new conceptions of the world and human nature.”