It could be the smell that, more than anything else, that captures the feeling of a circus – the peculiarly distinct smell, the scent of everything: an aural attack that appears to go into the throat and then snag the tonsils. It’s a complex odor, which is both nebulous and somehow sculptural, much like the smell of a circus tent and the big top itself.
On the day that the Circus opens, the manager of the company would bring together the entire crew – roustabouts and elephant handlers, clowns and acrobats, tightrope walkers and jugglers to help lift the canvas roof to its highest point on its poles, releasing over the fairgrounds, the most significant single piece of cloth that people have ever seen throughout their lives. The next day, the group would meet again early to make the compound smell of the Circus. The sweet scent of sugar burning on cotton candy machines and the nebulous scent of animal manure. Hot peanuts, wood shavings. Old dust sucked out of tents that are faded. There’s grease paint as well as popcorn. The sweaty tinge of bubbly excitement or perhaps some tamped-down sadness. Somewhere, in any way, that is different from the normal and routine. Something incredibly unlikely or bizarrely unbelievable.
A circus, in reality, is a unique redolent scent that stands out from others. The issue, naturally, is: Redolent of what? The answer appears to be redolent from other circuses. For Americans older than 40 years of age, it’s difficult to recall the first time someone went to a circus. They’re all mingled together, one natural spectacle with another and of circuses appearing in films, television shows, and books. The brave young men in the trapeze and the sad-faced clowns, the high-wire walkers, wild beasts’ tamers, even the ethereal girls riding horses, the plumes that hang on both of their heads. The characters appear to be around for a long time.
In reality, it’s not true. The Circus as we see it today, in the way we envision its fundamental design, is a relatively new thing. Popular mythology usually traces the history of the modern Circus back to the early Romans; however, as you can see in The Circus, which dates from a new PBS documentary on the American Experience, The Circus, which century American Experience American style, was something different around the globe.
The most apparent origins are in European shows of horsemanship. For instance, the rings that make up the classic American three-ring Circus are derived from horse-related rings, providing good visibility for the spectators and creating the centrifugal force required to push the riders against their horses as they perform. In the beginning, European circuses were operated by teachers from horsemanship schools. They discovered they could make more money by entertaining the crowds in the afternoon than by charging students for morning classes.
In Shelburne’s circus posters collection, many posters call out examples of proto-modernism. Exploitation is a significant theme running through the advertisements to Barnum’s American Museum, including this one for Vantile Mack, The Infant Lambert, also known as Giant Baby!! ca. 1851.
–Currier & Ives, Vantile Mack, The Infant Lambert, or Giant Baby!! ca. 1851. Hand-colored lithograph, 12 inches x 9 3/4 inches. A collection from the Shelburne Museum, gift of Harry T. Peters, Jr., Natalie Peters along with Natalie Webster, 1959-67.6.
The hippodromes of their era grew more prominent as they grew larger. Eventually, they competed with the most famous opera houses. In 1844 1844, the Cirque Olympique, located in Paris, was home to the Circus and National Opera. The British horseman Philip Astley is often named the ancestor of the modern Circus. By the late 17th century, his Royal Amphitheatre in London boasted four levels of seating and a central flooring that could hold performances, operas, and circus performances. Jane Austen mentions Astley in her 1815 novel Emma, and Charles Dickens records a visit in his 1841 Old Curiosity Shop: “Dear, dear what a wonderful space it was that Astley’s, with all the gold, paint and looking-glasses. The subtle scent of horses, a sign of the future, The curtain that held so many beautiful secrets; the clear white sawdust. . . . What a glowing light it radiated over them all at the time that clear, long bright row of lights slowly climbed up. . . . You could make Barbara be unsure whether she should laugh or cry in her exuberance of happiness.”
The reason is that Charles Hughes, one of Astley’s employees, left to create his own Circus, the Hughes Royal Circus, Astley’s principal competitor. As well as John Bill Ricketts, one of Hughes’s employees, would also leave for Philadelphia in 1790 to begin the first major-scale American Circus.
In the following decades, when the wagon trails and canals moved westward, circus tents instead of permanent structures were the norm for the American extravagant. The performers on tour from Europe discovered that there were few cities big enough to accommodate large opera houses. However, they soon realized that plenty of money could be made from performing short performances to a crowd of farmers in tiny towns. When railroads started traveling across the continent, the circuses joined in by converting their menageries to stock vehicles and moving their wagons onto flatcars. Ultimately, as they developed big-top tents and trains owned by the company, American showpeople created the Circus that would become famous for over 100 years.
It’s in this, as part of the American tradition, which The Circus on PBS The Circus chooses to start the story. The film’s stage was set by the popularity of Michael Gracey’s 2017 movie “The Greatest Showman–a show about P. Barnum. Barnum’s famed successes and his eventual regret. The film reveals that, as The Circus shows, the real Barnum was a different kind of character. It was something that could have been more appealing to the modern palate.
In reality, the word “pretty” seems to describe nearly all who contributed to the development of the American Circus. Not only Barnum, which is featured in the documentary as well as his well-known competitor Adam Forepaugh, the Ringling Brothers, and even Barnum’s future business partner, James Anthony Bailey. The Circus presents an impressive argument that these entrepreneurs’ interactions created the image Americans continue to envision when the word”circus” is used.
–James Reilly, Little All Right, The Japanese Marvel in His Perilous ‘Slide for Life,’ 1883. Wood-cut on paper 90 x 42 inches. A collection from the Shelburne Museum, Harold and Gladys Degree gift, Colchester, VT, 1991-18.2. Photograph by Andy Duback.
Barnum, who was invincible and self-promotional, was thriving despite numerous business disasters. He was always looking to beat the smug Forepaugh. Barnum’s most significant success in this respect came when, in his 70s, he spotted the organizational skills of the ten years younger Bailey and secretly joined Bailey while publicly announcing their fierce rivalry – a typical Barnum move.
The partnership, Barnum and Bailey’s was the dominant force on this American show until Bailey’s passing in 1906, after which the business was bought through Ringling Brothers. The massive combination of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ran until it was shut down in 2017 due to the sluggish decline in ticket sales.
Naturally, there are other reasons ticket sales fell. Circuses were always family-oriented entertainment, hinting at the illegal and the bizarre. There was a glimpse of imminent catastrophe as The Flying Wallendas built human pyramids from the air. There was a tingling hint of flesh, with women dressed in tights strutting around the middle of the ring and peepshows hidden in the area off the fairway. A touch of the creepy, a splash of extravagant, and a hint of the criminal.
One of P. T. Barnum’s genius was his ability to remove some of the rough edges. To improve the reputation of circuses, he marketed his grotesqueries and menageries as educational experiences. Ministers were invited to praise the Circus for being healthy entertainment instead of unmoral indulgence or idleness. He advertised his hire of Pinkerton detectives to assure people attending the Circus that they wouldn’t be pickpocketed.
The other aspect of P. Tom. Barnum’s genius wasn’t to rub off too much. Barnum still made money through the dwarfism and slenderness of Tom Thumb. He had bearded women, and twins conjoined. He also resisted the dangers of trapeze performers working without nets and animal tamers that wild animals accompanied. Through all his developments, He preserved a bit of the eerieness of the Circus, which was strange and exotic.
His successors did better. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, every shift brought about the normalization of circuses, severing their mysterious center. Disneyland was founded around this model, naturally, and opened in 1955 in an attempt to recreate the original carnival and amusement park, with all the filth ejected. However, like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey realized, Disney always proved best at putting on Disneyland. The Circus that isn’t rife with shady elements is no anymore an actual circus.
Although the Circus’s owners were reducing the size of their Circus to accommodate what they believed were cultural changes but the changing culture was quicker. With OSHA laws and obligatory risk insurance for all employees, the public required safety in a show known for its dangers. The sexual revolution and the rise of porn and tight-fitting women on horses stopped appearing transgressive. As the world slowed, the global population of African animals no longer seemed exotic. Thanks to the information economy of internet technology, Internet, P. T. Barnum’s style of outrageous hoaxes was quickly discredited. In the wake of the rise of animal rights activists, parades featuring elephants and caged cats were being banned more and more.
The Circus of the past displayed a small amount of the mystical to everyday people. It’s no wonder sideshows grew in popularity no matter how outrageous and exploitative the claims made by P. T. Barnum’s peeps, The real unicorn! Siamese twins! Jo Jo the Dog-Face Boy! He talks, walks, and the crouching on his stomach as if he were a reptile! Suppose these elements are present in contemporary circuses, from the acrobatics and acrobatics at Cirque of Soleil to the absurdity of the Shrine Circus. In that case, the references are funny, knowing the audience is on the comedy.
In the past just a few years ago, moviegoers regularly cheered at the end of movies. Ringleaders today are often required to entice audiences to cheer the circus stars, who, as live performers, need the enthusiasm of a lively crowd. As modern audiences are withdrawn, the show takes on a heartache that resembles the shattered romantic gesture. The fire swallower is now more desperate and less courageous. The spandex-clad lady spinning within the gyroscope is the object of only a serene desire.
But it wasn’t always that way, but in the decades of decline, we’ve lost something the Circus once offered: an integration of the bizarre and the improbable. Despite P. Barnum’s ego and P. Barnum’s boastful statements, the fact is that even one twist can make everything seem sinister. For example, the idea of evil clowns is now a popular trend. The circus theme in movies is often dark, even as early as the time of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1952 “The Greatest Show On Earth,” which featured Jimmy Stewart playing a criminal hiding in grease paint from law enforcement.
The tunes for circuses were never dull. The most famous piece connected to the center of the ring, Julius Fucik’s Entrance to the Gladiators, starts with a screech of chromatic scales. However, almost any oom-pah-pah waltz tune can be altered to sound like a threatening circus if it is layered with some chromatic runs set with tritones and transformed to a minor note or played on a piece of equipment frightening like a kid’s music box.
–Collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University
Consider, for a moment, what circuses were. Eye specialists, dentists, and church farmers would happily distribute tickets to the children every summer when the Circus was getting closer. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The air was electric with electricity, the entire town as if it were in the midst of a sort that was not in time. The town’s residents would take unnecessary trips to the fairgrounds and watch the circus trucks empty. There was a sense of tension being squeezed through the guy wires. An employee trying to test the cable using an injured thumb and issuing a metallic sound like a signal to say, “The circus!” The Circus is coming! The Circus is coming to town!
The tattered tents, patched with patches, were fading from the years of intense sunlight. Diesel generators rumbling in the background. A sad woman offering lipstick and red candy apples her face as if it were a half-remembered photograph on a post office wall. A huge fan sat on the open flaps of the tent to battle the swelter, adding the sound without moving air. The lions are panting in the cage beside an earring on the side. A clown who was directing five dogs that were so old the audience would laugh every time a dog jumped through hoops.
The old-fashioned way of life was not going out of sight at all. In the heat of summer, people would use any handy item, like a paper popcorn tub that had been ripped open, the folded church bulletin that was wrung from a purse, and even tickets splayed out like cards. However, the unimaginative had also gained hold, as in the normal-looking woman wearing the side ring, who turned into a contortionist and swung her legs around her head. The high-wire show had us in suspense while the performers took on falling. A smirk would be heard from the crowd when the lion tamer placed his head into the mouth of the beast. The clowns couldn’t bring us to laughter; they did make us smile. A blonde woman poses behind a moving horse. The ringmaster, wearing his top hat, white jodhpurs with a red color, and black booties, directs our attention to every new show with a click of his baton.
In all of it, the eerie scent of a circus could be smelt in our nostrils, bringing back memories of something else that isn’t there—
superimposing upon this Circus every Circus that has ever existed.