Brief History of Circus

George Speaight defined the history of circus as “the story of that entertainment of human bodily skills and trained animals that are presented in a ring of approximately 13 meters in diameter with an audience grouped all around it.” The entertainment type, circus, was developed in England with horse shows.
While traveling, zoological exhibits (known as menageries) and acrobats, tricks, and animal performances were all a part of the entertainment during the 18th century. Before, they combined all these aspects inside a circle known as the circus. Philip Astley (1742-1814), the eminent founder of the modern circus, presented an event in London in 1768 that featured trick horseback riding, live music, and more. The show was staged in a circular structure named Astley’s Amphitheatre. The show later included other shows, including clowns, acrobats, and an orchestra to his performances. The term “circus used to describe this kind of spectacle was coined by his contemporary competitor Charles Dibdin, who opened The Royal Circus in London in 1772.
Dibdin’s name was widely used to refer to the mix of comedy, horsemanship, and animal acts planned to create a spectacle. It was in 1793 that John Bill Ricketts opened the first Astley-type show in America. US at Philadelphia. Ricketts circus featured the rope-walker, clown, and riding shows. In the early 19th century, most of the early circuses in America and Europe relied on the concepts of Philip Astley.
In the middle of the Victorian time, traveling circuses had grown into substantial commercial operations with offerings ranging from small tenting shows to massive enterprises housed in permanent structures or amphitheaters. In the early part of the 19th century, circuses were primarily held in wooden buildings, not in tents. Owners like Frederick “Charles” Hengler constructed special-purpose buildings called theaters, hippodromes, and circuses across the United Kingdom.
Hengler was among the best circus owners of the nineteenth century. He had a passion for horses musician, was a performer in all forms, and was director of the circus of his brother Edward. Hengler’s Circus was at first an entertainment company that toured in the 1850s, but from then, from the 1850s onwards, Charles established permanent circus venues at Glasgow, Dublin, Hull, Birmingham and Bristol and operated the shows from his base in Liverpool.
The concept of tents made of canvas for outdoor shows was brought over from America around 1840. In the 1840s, when Hengler opened his circus in Liverpool, the Howe’s and Cushing’s United States Circus was advertising that “Tents now take precedent of Marble Halls.” In the 1850s, circuses in America and the United Kingdom already had many of the features commonly associated with the current ones. Established American circuses before they entered the Civil War (1861-1865) included Dan Rice’s Circus and Van Amburgh’s Circus, Spalding & Rogers Circus, and Cushing’s and Howe’s American Circus. In the mid-nineteenth century, European and American circuses began diverging in style and form. The British and European circus was built on the Astley concept of a single ring. Although the performances within the ring grew more complex and innovative, the idea remained the same.
In the United States, however, the expansion of railways in the 1870s permitted show-goers to see circuses travel over large distances at a scale that was never seen before, and the legendary train shows began. To accommodate larger audiences, the circuses’ owners added rings with larger tents or even tops. The circus show evolved into a spectacle with a huge cast of performers, extravagant animal performances, and even sideshows. The Barnum and Bailey’s Circus Train comprised a range of sixty to seventy carriages for trains.
As the circus grew, the show’s schedule changed. The acts of the Victorian circus included aerial acts like the tightrope or the trapeze, equestrian rides as well as ground-based acts such as Acrobats that included such innovations like the perch and the breakaway ladder, juggling, as well as the most popular element of circus performances, the clown. The mix of showing wild animals within the tradition of menagerie with tricks and routines resulted in the popularity of the animal circus, including elephant shows, lion-taming, and feats of horsemanship. Circus performers soon became household names. The most famous tightrope performer was Blondin, who rode across Niagara Falls in 1859. But the most significant breakthrough came from the fly trapeze show conceived through Jean Leotard at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris in 1859.
In the late 19th century, the circus was an established and well-known form of entertainment for families and the aristocracy that traveled to entertain. Queen Victoria invited a variety of circus showpeople, including P.T. Barnum, to consider the royal family in Windsor and Balmoral during the 1840s. Royal patronage ensured its status as an art form and an entertainment form that was the most awaited of the entertainment performed during her time.
Since its luxury at the end of the eighteenth century, the show has been on the move, evolving and incorporating various other elements as every generation of circus performers tries to challenge and innovate the art of showmanship. The showpeople featured in the collections of the NFCA share two points of commonality. The first is that none were born into the traditional background of the circus. Then, each of them had a significant role in expanding the concept of the circus, thus bringing the experience of a circus to new viewers. Each of them defined the idea of a circus for their time. Starting with the father of the Circus, Philip Astley, we then move on to the two greatest showpeople of the 19th century Lord George Sanger, who did more than any other showman to increase the popularity of the circus throughout the United Kingdom, and P.T. Barnum, showman supreme.
The 20th-century circus was led by three prominent figures who each had created the style of entertainment for their time. Bertram Mills entered the business because of a bet, and fairground showman Billy Smart purchased a circus to the awe of his family, and then Gerry Cottle, a stockbroker’s son born in London. Their stories show that chaos is always where the most gifted can escape.
Nowadays, the circus is a mix of dancing and new media. It can be performed without or with animals and could even have a narrative structure based on immersive theatre. The modern circus isn’t restricted to an elongated ring of 13 meters with an audience around it. Still, a single element that should be distinctive among all circuses is that they must always have extraordinary human body skills extended to the maximum to delight and please the spectators.
The NFCA strives to capture every aspect of how this fantastic and unique art form has changed in the past three centuries. Recent donations have expanded our collection to include the beginnings of new or contemporary circuses and more traditional performances. Our global poster and program collections span the story of the chaos from the 18th century to the present.

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