Is there a greater show on Earth than the circus? We think not! There’s just something about seeing that huge tent that brings joy and excitement to so many kids around the world.
And what’s not to love? From clowns and animals to aerial acrobats and curious oddities, the typical circus has a lot to offer anyone and everyone.
Although many people believe the circus got its start in ancient Rome, it’s actually much more modern than that. The Roman circus was more like the modern racetrack. The only thing it had in common with the modern circus was its name.
The father of the modern circus was Englishman Philip Astley. As a member of the cavalry in the Seven Years’ War, he learned to train horses. After the war, he continued to develop his talent with horses and became a showman.
In the late eighteenth century, Astley combined his horse show with other elements of modern theater in a show that took place in a circular arena. What did he call it? The circus, of course! (Circus means “circle” in Latin.)
To keep his show from getting boring, Astley began to add new acts over time. Between horse acts, he introduced acrobats, dancers and jugglers. He also added a character he borrowed from local theater: the clown.
Within a few years, the modern circus had been created. Over the next decade, the circus grew in popularity with new circuses opening in France, Russia and the United States.
These early circuses usually had permanent homes in large buildings. In the young United States, though, there weren’t many cities large enough to support a permanent circus building.
To reach a growing population that was moving steadily westward, circus owners developed the traveling circus. In 1825, circus entrepreneur Joshuah Purdy Brown became the first to use a large canvas tent instead of a permanent building.
In the 1830s, the United States circus industry pioneered another element of the modern circus: exotic animals. Businessmen imported various wild animals from around the world to create traveling menageries.
One final part of the American circus experience was yet to come along, though. In the 1870s, circus promoter Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum started the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus. In addition to the other circus elements, he created the Sideshow — a “museum” of animal and human oddities.
Over the next decade, traveling circuses began to travel by train. They also got bigger. The size of the tents grew, as additional rings were added. Some circuses boasted as many as seven rings and stages under the tent, which became known as “The Big Top.”