Georgians have enjoyed the circus as entertainment since the early 19th century. Georgia was the first state to host a circus in 1801 when Savannah hosted one. The chaos made its debut in America in 1793.
Like the circuses we see today, these early shows were dominated by horseback riding, acrobatics, and clowning. From the early nineteenth century to today, the appeal of the chaos in Georgia provides insight into the changes in southern popular culture.
The Antebellum Circus
Early circuses were strictly urban entertainment. The circuses would perform in the same city for several weeks in temporary wooden structures or theaters built by showpeople. In Georgia, a state with a coast, the shows were moved by riverboat from one city to another. Before 1825, no circus had played further west than the short-lived state capital Louisville. In 1825, the advent of the portable canvas tent allowed for more ambitious and frequent moves into Georgia’s backcountry. Adding smaller towns to the itineraries of the circus meant that performers and workers had to move on rutted, muddy roads to get from one Georgia community to the next. By the 1820s, circuses were in the interior Georgia towns of Athens, Macon and Milledgeville, and Columbus.
The shows included entertainment that was sure to impress rural and small-town Southerners. They featured exotic animals, beautiful horses, and displays of athleticism and strength. The troupes included risqué acts such as scantily-clad female equestrians or ribald circus clowns who performed in a single circle. The appearance of circus posters in Georgia’s remote hamlets on fences and barns attracted hundreds of people from all walks of life to the town for show day. They lined up on the main street to watch the circus parade before crowding underneath the canvas for the show.
Showpeople were prompted to create tented accommodations that reflected the Southern race and class hierarchy. The circuses always attracted young men who were drunk, carousing, and fighting, sometimes with other circus roustabouts. These shows attracted free and enslaved African Americans. To accommodate well-off white families, many antebellum shows offered reserved seats. The “pit” was the area of the tent without seats where lower-class whites and African Americans, as well as the occasional prostitute, would watch the show. The pit was separated with Whites on one side and Black viewers on another. Circuses would continue offering spectator areas segmented based on class and color until the 20th century.
The combination of disorderly males and morally dubious entertainment led evangelical leaders and elites to denounce circuses. Methodist Book of Discipline, for example, prohibited circus attendance by church members until the 20th century. Faculty at the University of Georgia, Athens, deemed circuses immoral and banned students from attending them. Newspaper Editors condemned the crude nature of circus entertainment and the rough crowds who gathered to watch it. These criticisms deterred many respectable people from attending these traveling shows. Showmen claimed that their animals displayed the wonders of God’s Creation and would not offend the most ethical individuals.
In the fall of 1865, circuses returned to Georgia after the Civil War (1861-65). Most nineteenth-century shows took place in the North. However, some tried to appeal to Southern audiences by adding titles like “Great Southern” and “New Orleans” while highlighting any Southern performers. Georgia produced a short-lived production during these years. A prominent showman and an enterprising Atlanta owner organized the Haight and Wooten Circus in 1871, featuring many Southerners as performers and staff. Haight and Wooten separated as a team by 1872. Haight then formed the Great Eastern Circus, which toured Georgia, the Southeast, Canada, and other countries for many years.
In the 1870s, wagon transport was replaced by rail transportation. This made size more critical than sectional loyalty. Georgia had the first known circus to use a railroad in 1838, but the industry didn’t fully adopt rail travel until 1872. The chaos that moved on rails could transport more men, animals, and equipment than ever before. Showmen increased the size of their circus tents from one to three rings. This allowed seating capacity to increase from hundreds to thousands. Due to these changes, the circus became the most popular entertainment in the United States during the nineteenth century.
The use of railways also changed the social aspect of the circus. Thanks to wagon movement, a small town could get the same top show as a large city. The leading circuses were confined to growing towns and large cities along railroad tracks. The journey to the chaos is now as important as the show for rural Georgians. Farmers and their family members left home days and even hours before a circus show to travel by foot, horseback, wagon, or excursion train. The country folk joined city dwellers of all colors and classes to form a vast circus crowd. These crowds socialized, drank, fought with each other, laughed, and celebrated the end of a hard day. In the 1880s, Georgia’s merchants and community leaders welcomed the circus as country folk spent large amounts in local shops and restaurants before and after the show.
Georgia’s African Americans were particularly enthusiastic about the circus and all the activities that accompanied it. Early in the morning, ambitious Black Georgians set up a “snack stand” near the grounds of the chaos to sell edibles to both races. The booths were also central for African Americans to gather and mingle throughout the day.
Even if they couldn’t afford a show ticket, the magnificent circus parades offered free entertainment for those with fewer means. The limited segregation of showpeople was perhaps the most appealing aspect of the experience for African Americans. Black and white circus patrons shared the same ticket lines, entered the main gate through the same entrance, and mixed in the open viewing areas for the sideshow tents and menagerie. Circus managers only separated races under their big tops. Circus managers only separated races under their big tops.
Despite the circus ‘ carefree atmosphere, the tented attire remained a magnet for dangerous and immoral situations. Gambling games rigged to the advantage of the show became a common sideshow. Another problem was violence. Georgian men were fueled by alcohol and stabbed, shot at, or murdered one another in the circuses. In violent clashes with Georgia toughs, several circus performers also died. In 1881, a riot broke out between local ruffians and show workers in Cartersville.
Georgia shows were not only a source of chaos. In Valdosta, a circus elephant went on a rampage in 1902. It killed one man and terrified the entire town until the chief police officer dispatched it with a powerful rifle. Not all animal incidents have been so tragic. In 1889, an Atlanta businessman bought the menagerie from a bankrupt Circus and donated it to Grant Park. The animals donated to Grant Park became the foundation of Atlanta’s first zoo, Zoo Atlanta.
The Twentieth-Century Circus
In the early 20th century, the circus was in decline. The Georgian public was attracted to new forms of entertainment, such as movie theaters, amusement parks, and professional sports. As cars on the roads increased, the famous and long-standing tradition of free circus parades had to be discontinued. Georgians could still be proud of the shows that made Georgia their winter home. Macon’s Central City Park was home to five circuses between 1908 and 1956. Other Georgia cities that hosted circuses during the first half-century included Americus, Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, Valdosta, and Valdosta.
Cirque du Soleil and Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, two smaller circuses popular in America since the 1990s, are leading the way. The Black-owned UniverSoul Circus debuted in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1994. It is Georgia’s contribution towards this new generation. The UniverSoul Circus is a one-ring circus with standard acts such as clowning, acrobatics, and performing animals but with an African American flair. UniverSoul’s performers break with the circus conventions by dancing to rhythm & blues, salsa, and hip-hop. Its clowns also draw their humor from the reality of urban life. The show invites audience members to join in the dancing and singing, bringing back the intimacy and interaction of the antebellum-era circus. The UniverSoul Circus, with its blend of tradition and innovative elements, demonstrates how the venerable institution of the chaos is a vital part of Georgia and the United States’ cultural fabric.