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The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

by Janet M. Davis

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Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top


Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
A thoughtful commentary on a society caught between the stability of Victorian traditions and the arrival of an internationally involved and technologically modern America. Davis aptly conveys the circus's peculiar embodiment of, on the one hand, the conventional and moral and, on the other, the provocative and sensuous.
Publishers Weekly
The sight of trains pulling in and circus tents being set up was the highlight of the year for many American towns at the turn of the century; schools and stores closed and everyday life stood still. In 1903, 98 circuses and menageries the highest number in U.S. history traveled the nation. In this fascinating, provocative history of a democratic form of public entertainment, Davis, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, elucidates the enormous cultural impact of the railroad circus and how it became a "powerful cultural icon" and a concrete representation "of racial diversity, gender difference, bodily variety, animalized human beings, and humanized animals" as well as a "celebration of America's emerging role as a global power." Davis presents her theoretical material carefully, but the profuse illustrations of her theses make the book compulsively readable. By meticulously scrutinizing individual circus acts and exhibits e.g., "statue girls," near-naked women covered in white greasepaint to resemble art, challenged concepts of femininity; "learned pigs" questioned the concept of human intelligence; clowns and strongmen became the visible manifestations of public discussions about masculinity she shows how circuses provided a vibrant, visceral forum for the era's cultural changes. Arguing that circuses "helped catapult a `nation of loosely connected islands' into a modern nation-state with an increasingly shared national culture," Davis traces how this continues today, in different forms, in places like Disneyland and Las Vegas. Smart and impressively researched, this is an important contribution to the literature of popular culture and U.S. cultural history. Color and b&w illus. (Sept. 23) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
[A] fascinating, provocative history of a democratic form of public entertainment. (Publishers Weekly)

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The University of North Carolina Press
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Circus Age

Culture and Society under the American Big Top
By Janet M. Davis

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 080782724X

Chapter One

Circus Day

On June 11, 1999, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus crept into Austin, Texas, at dusk. Arriving at a downtown rail yard on that still, sultry evening, the circus quietly conveyed its animal stock to the nearby show site without any announcement to the public, in order to avoid traffic, insurance hassles, and most important, confrontations with animal rights activists. The circus had been advertised in the local newspaper and on television, but the media paid little attention to its actual presence during its two-day stint. The Austin American-Statesman contained only one blurb about the circus, sandwiched next to a notice about a local traffic death: "Elephant dung for the taking: Bring your own shovel and a bucket today if you want to scoop up manure from the elephants owned by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus." The circus performed four times at the Erwin Center, an expansive, air-conditioned indoor arena at the University of Texas. In the blinding heat and sunshine, parents with small children streamed to the show from adjacent parking lots, grateful to enter the climate-controlled cool surrounding the circus.Meanwhile, the hustle and bustle of community life and commerce continued outside uninterrupted.

Yet a hundred years earlier, a large railroad circus shut a town down. Months before, people knew that it was coming: scores of "advance men" and billposters had already plastered all over dull barns, storefronts, and saloons thousands of vivid lithographs of wild animals and scantily clad performers emblazoned in splashes of peacock blue, orange, molten red, yellow, grass green, plum, and gold to advertise the upcoming show. In 1892 Adam Forepaugh's circus, for one, announced its impending presence in Philadelphia by mummifying an eight-story building with 4,938 lithographs, in addition to pasting thousands of other posters around the city. In detail, local newspapers eagerly chronicled the circus's movement, along with complete information about its arrival time.

On "Circus Day" (as it was called in newspapers, memoirs, and show programs across the nation), shops closed their doors, schools canceled classes, and factories shut down. In 1907 the Board of Education in Bridgeport, Connecticut, voted to close the schools on Circus Day, and children in Paterson, New Jersey, successfully lobbied school authorities to dismiss classes. When the Adam Forepaugh circus arrived in South Bend, Indiana, that same year, the Studebaker Wagon Works locked its doors so that its seven thousand employees could see the program. Special trains offering discounted "excursion" fares transported rural circus-goers living within a fifty-mile radius of the show grounds. Roads became thick with people, horses, and wagons. A resident of Clifton, Arizona, remembered that when Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to town in 1913, some local farmers sold part of their hay and grain supply in order to take their entire families to the show. Farmers traveled by horse and wagon twenty to forty miles and spent scant cash on novelty items like popcorn, cotton candy, and pink lemonade. Known as "rubber necks" to circus workers, rural residents craned constantly to take it all in. Sherwood Anderson was mesmerized by Circus Day as a boy in Clyde, Ohio: "When a circus came to the town where Tar [Anderson] lived he got up early and went down to the grounds and saw everything, right from the start, saw the tent go up, the animals fed, everything." In 1904 a newspaper in the mill town of Ashland, Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Superior, noted the circus's impact: "All the roads brought in large train loads of people who came here to attend the circus and many people arrived last evening. All the mills on this side of the bay stopped work today noon and almost all business is at a standstill and everyone is taking the circus."

The railroad circus overwhelmed large cities as well. When Barnum & Bailey opened its annual season in New York City in 1905, the route book reported that both the matinee and evening programs on March 24 at Madison Square Garden (where the self-styled "Greatest Show on Earth" traditionally opened each year) were "big," "packed." Many others were turned away. The next day, there was an "immense crush" at the doors when huge crowds were refused entry at the already overflowing arena. "The Ringling Bros. circus virtually shut down New Orleans in 1898. According to the Daily Picayune, "Last night the Ringling Bros." Circus came near depopulating the city. It looked as if everybody had gone to the big show. If you wanted to see anybody you had only to look through the crowd, for they were all there."

On Circus Day, thousands of spectators spilled into the streets to watch the free parade (fig. 1). Barnum & Bailey's New York City parade in 1891 had 400 horses, 16 elephants, 1,000 circus performers, and copious animals from the menagerie. This living sensory mass of color, sound, and odor proceeded slowly down Fifth Avenue, weaving through congested Manhattan until it reached Madison Square Garden. The scene was equally grand in provincial towns. In 1904 a filmmaker captured brief, grainy images of Barnum & Bailey's parade in Waterloo, Iowa, on celluloid: thick crowds, jiggling dromedaries, zebra herds, a forty-horse hitch, a military band, intricate, gilded "cage" wagons, each housing panting feline predators, smiling, waving women dressed in gauzy, kimonolike gowns atop the elephants, and a calliope at the rear of this moving expanse. Knowing that throngs of people watched the parade from second- and third-story windows, the John Robinson circus built fancy tin roofs on its wagons (called "cottage cages") with brightly painted designs that could be viewed from above.

* * *

Long, winding lines at the ticket wagon greeted audience members who had not purchased their tickets in advance. Warren S. Patrick, treasurer of the Walter L. Main circus, remarked that selling 8,000 to 9,000 tickets in forty minutes (approximately 1,000 others had been sold in advance) was tough on his hands. "My mental calculation is invariably right; but now and then my fingers, after a severe strain, may drop one or two [quarters], too many or too little." Inside the show grounds, crowds wandered around gawking at the enormous tented city that could stretch across ten acres (fig. 2). Along the noisy midway, candy "butchers" (vendors) sold lemonade, palm frond fans, sausages, and roasted peanuts. Remembering Circus Day in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, Carl Sandburg vividly recalled the midway men who beckoned audiences with "oily tongue" to play games of chance for cheap prizes: "Only ten cents for a ring and the cane you ring is the cane you get." An hour before each big-top production, masses of people gathered at the sideshow tent lined with colorful banners depicting the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the Dog-Faced Boy, and the others inside. A velvety-voiced spieler (or talker) lured patrons to part with a dime and come inside during the "blow off," a tantalizing outdoor display of seminude women flexing their muscles, a "living picture gallery" tattoo artist, or perhaps a rousing rendition of skin snapping by the Elastic Skin Man. During the "blow off," some spielers even quietly intimated that audiences might see nude women at the adjacent "Gentlemen Only" "cooch" show.

* * *

Once inside the menagerie tent attached to the big top, spectators saw big cats and bears lounge, eat chunks of meat, and pace in their cages, while llamas, giraffes, educated pigs, horses, chimpanzees, and peacocks fidgeted nearby. The lively strains of the brass circus band-including operatic selections, marches, and plantation melodies-told the milling audience members that it was time to head inside the big top for the main program. Candy butchers shouted and scurried around the cavernous big top, a massive canvas space propped aloft by huge poles and ropes that could hold over 10,000 people (fig. 3). A grand, paradelike entry processional of animals and performers marked the start of the main program. Approximately twenty to twenty-five other acts followed. An international constellation of players worked simultaneously on three rings and two stages. At a typical Ringling Bros. show, performers heralded from twenty-two countries, including Persia, Japan, and Italy; fifty clowns cavorted around the serious acts in vignettes of intentional chaos. The athletic prowess of these sleek, muscular bodies was startling. As a boy in rural Iowa, the writer Hamlin Garland observed that "the stark majesty of the acrobats subdued us into silent worship." Mark Twain's Huck Finn echoed this sentiment as he solemnly watched big-top feats in a small Arkansas community: "It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely ... the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight ... and every lady's rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol." The big-top program ended with a series of rousing horse races on the arena's outer hippodrome track.

* * *

The mammoth circus audience was also part of the spectacle, as thousands of "strangers" from around a county streamed into town. Big cities overflowed. Provincial communities became temporary cities, complete with anonymous, pushing crowds. Fred Roys of New York compared the religious revivals of his youth to Circus Day. "Them religious revivals they used to have ... they was great doin's. When I was a kid we used to look forward to 'em like we did the circus. Sometimes they was as good as a circus." Newspapers focused on the crowd as a defining element of Circus Day. In 1890 one journalist described the "show" of nearly ten thousand people from around a county filing into Barnum & Bailey's big top: "It was the biggest crowd of people ever in one tent in the city. A great sea of faces stretched out in every direction, representing all of the country thirty miles around. To see so many people was the best part of the 'performance.'" Newspapers provided detailed lists of trains bringing specific numbers of people from outlying communities to the circus.

Yet the sheer physical presence of a circus and its swirling masses was often bewildering. When Ringling Bros. played at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on a steamy summer day in 1894, the huge throng became confused: "Pandemonium reigned and it seemed as if everybody was panic stricken. Families were parted, children screamingly hunted for parents, and parents distractedly hunted for children. Almost everyone was drenched to the skin and many a toilet was hopelessly ruined. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage to the property little or nothing."

Furthermore, the thousands of patrons tightly packed under the canvas tents were vulnerable in bad weather. The "blow down," or severe storm, was common. At Adam Forepaugh's 1893 date in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, audience members were trapped under the heavy big top after a gale force wind collapsed the tent. That same summer, in River Falls, Wisconsin, seven people were killed after slighting struck one of the center poles at the Ringling Bros. circus. When a windstorm "swayed and rocked" the big top at the Ringling Bros.' stint in Sherman, Texas, in 1900, spectators were so jittery that many of the more than 10,000 there "made a wild rush to get out." Tornadoes, hail, wind storms, torrential rain, and knee-deep mud were some of the weather hazards that could abruptly end the program. But these attendant weather-related dangers were also part of the jarring excitement on Circus Day.

* * *

This diverse, elephantine community disruption otherwise known as Circus Day reached its peak at a turbulent historical moment. In 1903 ninety-eight circuses and menageries-the highest number in U.S. history-traveled the nation. At least thirty-eight of these rumbled by rail, and several journeyed coast to coast in a single season. The historian Robert Wiebe characterizes this era as a time when a provincial "nation of loosely connected islands" was giving way to an anonymous, modern, urban, industrial society. Speculative investments in land and capital, the formation of large corporations, and accelerated industrialization defined the burgeoning post-Civil War economy. The proliferation of national railroad networks, the spread of the telegraph and telephone, the rise of the unscrupulous Gilded Age "robber baron," and the stirrings of the nascent automobile industry all helped destabilize an older, provincial way of life. Consequently, Wiebe argues that a "search for order" animated the Progressive project of corporate regulation and urban reform.

The face of the nation also changed rapidly during this era. From 1890 to 1924, about 23 million immigrants poured into the United States hoping to find prosperity in the nation's expanding industrial economy. The federal census of 1890 declared that the frontier had officially "closed," for there was no longer a clear line between settlement and wilderness in the trans-Mississippi West. By 1920 the U.S. census revealed that 51 percent of the population lived in cities with more than 2,500 residents. In the early twentieth century, the manufacturing output of the United States now exceeded that of Great Britain, Germany, and France combined. Some Americans, like Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward, 1888), held great faith in the eventual utopian promise of industrial society. Henry Ford envisioned the automobile as a democratic symbol for the "great multitude," produced by efficient, well-mannered workers on an assembly line, whose productivity and thrift would also make them good car buyers.

Yet this enthusiasm was hardly universal. Sherwood Anderson despaired that industrial development was strangling the nation's spiritual life: "The land was filled with gods but they were new gods and their images, standing on every street of every town and city, were cast in iron and steel. The factory had become America's church and duplicates of it stood everywhere, on almost every street of every city belching black incense into the sky." While observing the New York skyline in 1904, Henry Adams noted pessimistically that New York City was becoming a powder keg of change: "The city had an air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger.... Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid."

Periodic panics and depressions in 1873, 1893, and 1907 magnified this "irritable, nervous, querulous" milieu.


Excerpted from The Circus Age by Janet M. Davis Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Ground-breaking. . . . An ambitious work, important and well researched.—American Historical Review

[A] fascinating, provocative history of a democratic form of public entertainment. . . . Compulsively readable. By meticulously scrutinizing individual circus acts and exhibits . . . [Davis] shows how circuses provided a vibrant, visceral forum for the era's cultural changes. . . . Smart and impressively researched, this is an important contribution to the literature of popular culture and U.S. cultural history.—Publishers Weekly

An important and highly readable examination of the relationship between circus and US society at the beginning of the 20th century. . . . Davis did prodigious research and . . . places circus performance in historic and social context. . . . Strongly recommended for readers at all levels.—Choice

Davis shows with vivid examples and full contextualization the importance of the multi-ringed traveling American circus in both shaping and representing, in often amazing and sometimes subtle ways, American constructions of race, class, and gender.—Journal of American History

Davis forcefully and often brilliantly argues that the circus at once shaped and reflected American constructions of race, class, and gender. This is a book that offers readers depth, in its treatment of the circus, and breadth, in its treatment of multiple cultural constructions. It is an engaging and noteworthy contribution to American cultural studies.—Robert W. Rydell, Montana State University-Bozeman

A thoughtful commentary on a society caught between the stability of Victorian traditions and the arrival of an internationally involved and technologically modern America. Davis aptly conveys the circus's peculiar embodiment of, on the one hand, the conventional and moral and, on the other, the provocative and sensuous.—Times Literary Supplement

This is the richest examination yet of the cultural significance of the circus in America. This beautifully written book evokes all the color and excitement of the circus in its prime, a hundred years ago, while reminding us how much was at stake in these performances: ideas of gender, visions of empire, and intimations of the new industrial order. The circus touched the lives of Americans in all regions and of every ethnicity and social class, and Janet Davis demonstrates that its arrival in towns and cities all over the country brought not only entertainment but a foretaste of modernity.—Joy S. Kasson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A fascinating book.—New York Times

Meet the Author

Janet M. Davis is associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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