The Transnational History of the Early American Circus

While the evolution of the spectacle throughout the United States during the late 18th and the early 19th century was a unique transnational phenomenon, its past has been defined by national borders. Understanding the development of the first American circus requires a broader frame of reference that highlights how global circulations influenced emerging businesses. European entertainers and performers from Europe initially dominated the circus industry in the United States. But, the model changed during the 1820s and the 1830s, with the rise of native-born performers and showpeople, and the circus evolved in a distinct American manner, as reflected by its syncretism with culture and, mainly, the mostly itinerant model used. In conjunction with the strong domestic market, this opened the way for the growth that brought the American circus into the world.

After briefly discussing its global roots and rapid expansion in the United States, this essay examines the appearance and export of a distinctly American version of the circus in the 1820s and later. In the years that were to follow, the global scope of American circus activities grew across the hemisphere, including across the Atlantic and then into the Pacific. The study of this transnational path provides new insight into the antebellum U.S. entertainment industry and the broader circulation patterns that it impacted. American showpeople were adept at adapting the international style of circus to appeal to both domestic and international publics. Their success was the first indication of their popularity and reach in U.S. popular culture.

Before the spring of l793, in which English horseman John Bill Ricketts opened the first circus in Philadelphia, commercial entertainment was declining throughout the United States. It was limited to some venues in cities and a tiny variety of touring shows, including performers, acrobats, or other artists, along with diverse animal and scientific exhibitions. In the late nineteenth century, the majority of these shows were incorporated into museums or circus repertories and other kinds of popular art and culture. While there isn’t much information about the early itinerant entertainers who performed in America, it is known that in the United States, most of them were from overseas, most notably coming from the British Isles.  In the same way, almost all of the early circus managers and performers were also from other countries.

The English horseman John Bill Ricketts formed his early circus company based on an assortment of European performers. Then he augmented it with American talent and apprentices, including acrobats and dancing John Durang.  Four years after the arrival of Ricketts in 1792, the rival Swedish horseman, Philip Lailson, opened the first Circus at Boston with a group of 14 performers whose surnames reflect a mixture of French, German, Irish, and Italian origins.  Ricketts and Lailson performed in major American cities for several years. Still, after their demise in 1800 and despite the efforts of confident performers and local entrepreneurs, the circus saw a slowdown in circus activities. 

It was the case till the arrival of 1807 Victor Pepin and Jean Breschard in 1807. Pepin is a native of Albany but relocated to France with his dad when he was young. Pepin was back in France and the United States in partnership with Breschard. They marketed them as “First Riding Masters of the Academies of Paris” when they opened their doors in Boston in December.  Over the next ten years, Pepin, Breschard, as well as the Italian horseman Cayetano Mariotini, would be the most prominent circus artists across the United States, culling together performers from other companies, American-born performers and occasionally newcomers from overseas. In November 1816, James West, a celebrated horseman from The Royal Circus in London, arrived on the streets of New York with a large circus troupe that performed extensively and profitably throughout the expanding country. 

The apparent success of these foreign directors inspired native performers to pursue a career in the circus business. One of the most famous was two of New York’s most famous theatrical entrepreneurs, Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, who managed Tony Park Theatre. Tony Park Theatre. When James West’s circus began operating on Broadway the first week of February in 1822, for an extended time, Price and Simpson set the goal of collaborating to eliminate unwelcome competitors. After successfully luring Sam Tatnall, the first equestrian of distinction born in America away from the West, the two set his sights on breaking horses in a field close to their Park Theatre and spread rumors about the arena themselves. West was willing to sell his business, which included an equestrian stud and circus property in various other cities, to make the sum of a “handsome fortune.”  In 1822, when it was the time that the Park Theatre opened its fall season in 1822, Price and Simpson sent their circus troupe to Philadelphia and became a part of James Hunter, a recent arrival from Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. Hunter is the only horse in the United States to perform in the advertisement that describes him in the advertisements as “a animal in a shambling condition of nature”-bareback-and This new concept, along with his graceful manner, was what made him a cult figure. He was also the first circus performer who was specifically hired to perform on the purpose of an American tour, and his popularity ensured that, even when American performers were in charge, they would continue to attract international talent to increase revenue. 

In 1824, the arrival of America’s first owner of a circus, James W. Bancker, began changes in the business of circuses throughout the United States. The number of circuses doubled from two in 1822 to seventeen circuses a year after.  Moreover the end of the 1820s, all the early European performers had either left or left the stage to rising American showpeople like Aaron Turner, George F. Bailey as well as Rufus Welch.  While foreign performers were still present in American circuses, There was also a plethora of local talent. It was not just the increase in shows or the reorganization of personnel that marked the start of circuses in the United States. American circus.

The most significant change is J. Purdy Brown and Lewis Bailey’s adoption of a tent made of canvas or “pavilion” during their 1826 season. The tent revolutionized nearly all aspects of the circus in the United States, from the performance style to the logistics of the circus and funding. The advantages were evident, and the new concept was implemented so quickly that within a decade of the introduction of the tent, the American circus was operating under canvas and with only a few remaining permanent locations within New York City and other cities. Tents were less expensive than the structures that circuses traditionally relied on, and, most importantly, they gave the possibility of greater mobility. The move to canvas was a significant change for circuses in the American circus since it significantly increased the number of people who attended its shows across the nation and even beyond.

The rising popularity of native-born entertainers occurred during a growing nationalist sentiment across the United States. The show business was booming and drawing upon vibrant vernacular styles and the emergence of new kinds of entertainment that were commercially linked to nationalism. 17 James Fenimore Cooper, Edwin Forrest, along with a host of other well-known performers, writers, and artists, were focused on showing they believed that it was not the case that the United States was not a cultural backwater. The show was part of a more significant attempt to promote a uniquely American cultural tradition in the arts, including national themes and characters like the Yankee backwoodsman or the minstrel. The circus was considered a distinctly democratic entertainment form, and its promoters designed the content to be popular with audiences during that “era of the common man.”

The interplay of demographic, geographical, and economic changes also helped increase the number of audiences attending American circuses. Within just two decades, the number of people living in America United States more than tripled. The number of people living there jumped from five million at the turn of the century to more than 17 million by 1840, expanding westward into the Ohio River Valley and beyond the Mississippi. The new markets opening up in towns, cities, and the backwaters of provincial cities were eager to experience the type of touring entertainment the emerging mobile circus industry provided. The decades following the Panic of 1819, Panic of 1819, and the Panic of 1837 were also economically prosperous, allowing entrepreneurs to attempt to make their fortune through a touring show.

American showpeople dominated the business of traveling menageries. The earnings generated by the first elephants led to the expansion of animal exhibits through the 1820s. By then, around a dozen menageries, ever more extensive and exotic, toured across the country. Their mobility ensured an almost unlimited audience and a massive selection of animals was provided through a global network of European dealers as well as Yankee traders. The heart of the menagerie industry was a loose group of performers in New York’s Westchester as well as Putnam Counties who were inspired by the money a local farmer who was savvy Hachaliah Bailey garnered from touring the elephant Betty (also known as Old Bet). The menagerie and the circus were at first distinct forms of entertainment, which were frequently seen as separate, but in the 1830s, this group was a crucial player in the development of the American circus through the combination of both. 

The colossal expansion and fusion of the menagerie and circus business had a significant impact on the growth of U.S. industry of culture and was part of a broader and interconnected series of economic, social, technological, and cultural developments which historians have referred to as the “market revolution.”Perhaps the most evocative example of this could be The Zoological Institute. This capital stock company was founded in January 1835 by an ensemble of investors and showpeople from Somers, New York. The conglomeration incorporated the resources of around three circuses and a dozen menageries that were appraised for value, along with the money raised through the issuance of stock provided the company with $329,325 of total capital. A Board of Directors was placed to charge of allocating the resources and proscribing routes for the various units that made up the conglomerate, which included menagerie and circus groups as well as The Zoological Institute managed thirteen of the 20 shows that performed across the United States during the 1835 season. As a provider of show business, the Zoological Institute was unique in both size and structure. Although it was initially successful, it could not sustain itself during the Panic of 1837, but it’s a beautiful illustration of how American entertainers benefited from the market’s growth.

The main point of this article was the way in which the expansion, as well as the consolidation of the business of the circuses, made it possible for shows to be more involved in international markets. Although the beginning of the American circus United States was largely about European management and the absorption of foreign influences, There was a clear change in direction about 1830. As the business grew while the American circus developed into its unique model, its owners and performers became more aggressive both in and abroad. Traveling abroad requires flexibility and money. The manner in which circus evolved throughout the United States ensured that American showpeople could have both. The initial expansion of American circus activities was directed towards the Atlantic world and extended across the Canadian provinces up to the Caribbean and Central and South America. In the late 1830s, American performers were performing in European circuses. However, the competition generally prevented full American companies from traveling into the Atlantic. However, the American circus thrived in countries that did not have similar entertainment options. This was evident following the California Gold Rush when American performers quickly stepped into the new markets for entertainment in that part of the Pacific. The mid-nineteenth century was when the American circus was at its peak. It had become an international business.

The life of Benjamin Brown, in many ways, defined the history of the first American circus. Brown was born in 1799 and, as many of the showpeople he accompanied were to Westchester County. After working several odd jobs, Brown stepped into the show industry in 1823 with his brother Christopher and managed a zoo owned by Hachaliah Bailey. Its main attraction was an elephant, referred to under the name Little Bet and a lion. After a disagreement over the amount of money towards the end of the 1825 season, Brown quit the company to become the equestrian manager of the circus of J. Purdy Brown, his grandfather J. Purdy Brown in the 1826 watershed period under canvas. The following year, Brown was in charge of a more miniature circus, in collaboration with Christopher and his brother Herschel in a series of circuits that spanned Virginia and the Carolinas. The 1828 season was the first time The Brown brothers’ show operated in conjunction with a circus owned by Charles Wright, debuting the type of partnership that would become the norm for American circuses for the next ten years. They continued to tour the southern states for the following two years. However, the entertainment business on the move was increasing, and competition was growing more complex. 

In the winter of 1830, the Brown brothers attempted to make a name for themselves abroad by taking their first tour of the Caribbean. They were not the first circus or American performers in the Caribbean. Considering how the earliest American circuses traveling overseas did so via already-established international entertainment circuits is crucial. The most famous European performers and theatre companies that traveled across the United States often also visited the major Canadian and Caribbean ports and cities. Ricketts, Lailson, Pepin, and a few other European management teams brought their circuses to Canada and the West Indies, Mexico, and Cuba during or following their stay in the United States. In the latter half of 1826, Samuel McCracken took the Albany Circus Company to Jamaica for a few months, establishing a pattern in which American circuses went south to escape the sluggish winters within America. United States. American performers also began exploring new routes and what were initially considered less marginal markets. In 1829-31, a circus helmed by Eman Handy and Rufus Welch toured Cuba, St. Thomas, Cartagena (Colombia), and other locations.

The spread of the American circus and the lack of news coverage make this early effort hard to locate. Still, it is evident through U.S. sources that the extent and speed of international touring was expanding quickly. In this setting, it was that the circus of small size, run by Benjamin Brown and his brothers, left Charleston in 1830 to begin their first tour abroad. Although their exact route remains undetermined, they were in the country for 15 months, which indicates that the trip was a resounding success.26 The first stop they made in the first stop was Saint-Pierre, Martinique, where an advertisement for the Cirque Olympique, which they referred to it, offered an insight into the workings of the business. While the three Brown brothers took part in their show, Benjamin became the sole participant, acting as the ringmaster and appearing in a solitary role as a horse. The leading riding partner of the show was Napoleon Turner; three younger apprentices or riders–Andrew Levi, Levy, Frederick Hoffmaster, and Master George – supported the rider. 27 Jean Richer was the clown, traveling on six horsebacks. The menagerie accompanying them included the Lion, a “Brazilian tiger” (a jaguar), and twelve monkeys. One of them was billed by the alias Kapitein Dick, who was seen in the ring for the act of riding. A bill of entry from Berbice, Guyana, lists the wording “pavilion spar,” which stated that they were performing under canvas, but it is possible that this was not required anywhere they traveled.28 The last property owned through the organization was a hot air balloon, a novel idea utilized to draw attention to the show.

While the organization was small, its published programs of the Caribbean tour show that the show was comparable to other circuses in the same era. The poster that advertised the spectacle in the form of a Royal Pavilion Circus in Barbados provided a description of a typical show that began with a “Grand New Entry” of dressed horses and riders who performed a variety of coordinated routines. It was followed by an equestrian performance achieved by the apprentice Master Hoffmaster and a version of the Master Hoffmaster apprentice. Then all the performers returned to the arena to perform a demonstration that included “running vaulting.” This had equestrians jumping from the ground onto horses while clown Monsieur Richer mocked the performers, fought with the ringmaster, and entertained the crowd. The next show was that of an actual rider, the central one Turner, who performed “The Dashing Horseman,” in which he changed his costume and served poses while his horse raced through the rings. Following a performance with the horse-trained Kitty Clover, Richer displayed a “scene riding” display known as “The Dying Moor,” which was a spoof of action scenes.

The entire troupe went back into the circle for a show of acrobatics that was billed in the form of “Ground and Lofty Tumbling,” and then a follow-up principal riding show performed led by Master Levi. When the horse sped all speed around the ring, Levi stood on the back of the animal and jumped through balloons which were merely hoops with paper that created an even more dramatic show. Later, Benjamin Brown recalled the act:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *