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.”

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    • Great connection, Skye! We think it’s fun to Wonder about the very first circus– it probably looked very different from the circus we know today! Thanks for sharing your guess for tomorrow’s Wonder… we hope you’ll join us again tomorrow! :)

  1. We liked today’s Wonder. Under the big top we can find circus animals, clowns, and cotton candy. Yummy!!

    We think tomorrow’s Wonder will be about the zoo, or the forest, or the jungle, or the ocean, or the desert, or the aquarium. So many possibilities!

    • WOHOO, the Third Grade All-Stars are here today!! You did a great job of listing the different things you might find at the circus– nice work!

      Tomorrow’s Wonder is going to be a fun one, and we’re so happy you shared your guesses with us! We can’t wait to find out what it will be– we hope to see you then! :)

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We think tomorrow’s wonder will have to do with the zoo or maybe a jungle. We think it will be about a place that has a lot of animals.

    Thank you for the wonders,
    Mrs. Tillman’s 4th graders

    • SUPER guesses from our Wonder Friends in Mrs. Tillman’s 4th grade class! As always, we are very proud of all the creative WONDERing that has been going on in your classroom! :)

      We like your animal-themed guesses, and we also think you’re right on track… we Wonder what tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day® will be… but we can hardly wait! :)

  3. We thought today’s wonder was pretty cool. Kaitlyn is amazed at how the big top tents can stand up without falling and then be taken apart and moved. Olivia thinks it’s cool that in Europe the circuses were in permanent buildings. Riley thinks the size is amazing!

    We think tomorrow’s wonder might be about a jungle, a zoo, an aquarium, or maybe even ant farms.

    • Hip-hip-HOORAY, Mrs. Ski’s AM class is back today! We think our Wonder Friends Kaitlyn, Olivia and Riley have each shared GREAT facts about the circus today! Can you imagine being a part of the circus from the very beginning… and your job was to order exotic animals for others to see?! :)

      We can’t wait to Wonder again with you tomorrow– your guesses are pretty close! We’ll see you again and we hope you have a totally terrific Thursday! :)

  4. We enjoyed today’s WONDER, but we still have questions… we think tomorrow’s WONDER will be about a zoo or a jungle/forest, or maybe an aquarium.

    • We are so happy that Mrs. Karr’s class is continuing to Wonder– we think it’s fun when we can spark creativity! WAY TO GO, Wonder Friends! Thanks for sharing your SUPER guesses for the next day’s Wonder… it will be a jolly good time! :)

  5. Hmmmmm… I have never been to a circus, and don’t really want to. I thought the video was really cool. I also don’t like that some circuses use animals. Thanks!

    • Hi there, Bryleigh, we’re happy that you’re WONDERing with us today! We understand that the circus might not be your favorite event, but that’s okay! We are glad you enjoyed the video– it seems like a great deal of energy and work to set up and take down those tents! Phew! :)

  6. We guessed about the wonder of the day and came up with some of the same things as Mrs. Ski’s class: A jungle, a zoo, an aquarium, a farm, or an ocean. Also, we came up with the guess of a rainforest. We are learning about the turn of the century and the transcontinental railroad in social studies, so we made a connection that the circus must have started riding a train after the railroad was completed!

    • Check out the amazing guesses from our Wonder Friends in Mrs. Adams’ class! We like your animal-themed guesses… we think you’ll enjoy our Wonder tomorrow!

      Thanks for sharing the SUPER connection to our circus Wonder– it sounds like you’re having a great time WONDERing about the development of transportation over the years! We’re lucky that transportation, like the railroad, developed so quickly, otherwise it would be very hard to experience the same events or receive the same goods as those who live in different parts of the country! :)

  7. Some of the students in our class have been to a circus. We watched a video clip an acrobat twirling and spinning in the air from a ring. She also hung from her neck.

    We think tomorrow’s wonder will be about jungle, rain forest, ocean, woods, or zoo.

    • Wow, nice work WONDERing Wonder Friends in Ms. Bayko’s class! How cool that some of you have experienced all that a circus has to offer! We also are happy to hear that you continued to Wonder by watching some more circus-themed clips! :)

      Thanks for commenting and telling us about your SUPER guesses for tomorrow’s Wonder! We hope you’ll come back to visit again! :)

    • Hey there Jacob, we Wonder if you learned anything new about the circus from today’s Wonder! Have a terrific Thursday, Wonder Friend! :)

    • Welcome to our new Wonder Friends, The Third Grade Braves! We LOVE meeting new friends at Wonderopolis! WOHOO!

      We bet you learned something new about the circus today– how cool that you have your own journal to record your Wonders in! That sounds great! We hope you’ll join us again tomorrow for LOTS more WONDERing! Have a terrific Thursday! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your comment with us, Pink! We are glad you liked WONDERing with us about the super circus!!

      Great guesses for tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day®– we can’t wait to find out what it is with you! :)

    • WOW, we are so excited that you shared your Wonders with us, Kristi G! Thanks so much! We are excited to hear that you’ve been doing a great job of WONDERing on your own! We will add these to our Wonder pile– we can’t wait to see you soon! :)

  8. Hey Wonderopolis and I love the circus when I was little my dad took me to the circus it was so fun I once saw a man turn into a white tiger then turn back it was cool please reply back :) ;) yay bye Wonderopolis

    • WOW, what an adventure, Kaitie O! We think your experience at the circus sounds MAGICAL! :)

      Thanks for sharing your comment– we love to Wonder with SUPER Wonder Friends like you! Have a STELLAR Thursday! :)

  9. I liked how fast it was going because you could see what it takes to build a circus. I learned that it takes a long time, so long that you need time laspe photograpy.

  10. It was cool when they were making them build it so fast. Also I like when the tent loked like a castle. I also think it is a coincidence because I read this book that also takes place in a big top mall. The book was called “The One And Only Ivan”.

    • Hello Wonder Friends in Room 8! We are glad that Henry and Kamaria are WONDERing about the circus today! HOORAY! We’re glad you enjoyed watching the time lapsed video of building the circus– it is a long process with lots of people involved!

      Great work, Wonder Friends! :)

  11. I liked how tall the tent was and how it looked like a castle. This reminds me of The One and Only Ivan because in the story it’s a big top mall. How long did it take to build the circus tent?

  12. I felt like I was really helping the carnival get setup. I also noticed that it take a lot of time to get ready. This also reminds me of when I moved with my parents and it took a lot of time to setup in my new house.

    • Hello to our Wonder Friends in Room 8! We think Julian did a great job of connecting our Wonder to the story “The One and Only Ivan”, and Azhir noted that moving from place to place requires a lot of people, time and effort! Great job, Wonder Friends! :)

  13. I was surprised on how they built the big tent! My favorite part is when, they put up the tent and then aded the other parts to the tent. It almost has the same setting as “When The Circus Came to Town” and “The One and Only Ivan”.

  14. I liked how the video went fast. It wolud be great to see the show. This reminded me about The One And Only Ivan story.

    • WOHOO, our Wonder Friends in Room 8 are on a ROLL today! HOORAY! We are proud of Korayma for mentioning the process required when setting up a tent that large! Our Wonder Friend Juaquin mentioned how fast the video went, in order to see the entire process come to life! SUPER JOB, Wonder Friends! :)

  15. Did it take all day to set up circus? Also that was a nice circus too bad we didn’t get to see the inside when they were done. That was a lot of tools they were working with.

    • Our Wonder Friends in Room 8 have been doing a great job today! Ajhnae Wonders how long the circus takes to set up! Our Wonder friends weren’t a part of the making of the video, but we bet you can do some research of your own about the set up process! We’d love to hear what you find!

      Wonder Friend Khalil enjoyed the time lapsed video, just like us! The creators of this cool video used a special technique that speeds up the motion of the video– you can see more in a shorter period of time! Very cool!


    • Our Wonder Friends in Room 8 are having a ball at Wonderopolis today– that makes us oh-so-happy!

      Wonder Friend Nyla is curious about the amount of time spent on the tent! While we weren’t there to confirm how long it takes to put together a HUGE tent, we bet you can find out how long with a bit more WONDERing! :)

      Wonder Friend Tyler made a SUPER connection to the story “When the Circus Came to Town”! We bet today’s Wonder helped you imagine yourself as a character in the story!

      Great work, Wonder Friends! :)

  16. This reminded me of the book When the Circus Came to Town. It also reminded me of The One And Only Ivan. I lked how you made the video go fast.

  17. What I notice is when you made the circus it was very cool because we have a story called The One And Only Ivan and Ivan kind of lives in a circus. When you made a circus. The video was really cool.

    • It’s so much fun to Wonder with our Friends in Room 8 today!

      Katelyn enjoyed the speed of the video and the similarities between today’s circus Wonder and circus-themed stories, like, “When the Circus Came to Town”!

      Kayla H. really enjoyed watching the speedy video of the circus set up– we bet it would take a lot of energy and organization to put that gigantic tent together!

      Thanks for WONDERing today! :)

  18. I wondered how long did it take to make the big top? I thought that you will have to use a dump truck to get the tall thing that keeps the tent up.

    • Hi there, Audrick, what a SUPER question! We bet a tent like that requires a lot of setting up and planning! We Wonder if you can find out approximately how long it takes to set up and take down a circus tent! We would love to hear what you find! :)

  19. I wished that they had put the animals do their tricks. That reminds me of the story called “When The Circus Cames To Town”. I think that they will show the animals do their tricks at the cicus.

    • Our Wonder Friends in Room 8 are doing a super job of WONDERing today! Virtual high fives for everyone! :)

      Carla would have enjoyed seeing the animals that are part of the circus. We Wonder if they were still on the road, or if they were resting before their big performances!

      Andre enjoyed how big the tent is, but realizes it would be incredibly difficult to set up on his own!

      Thanks for sharing your comments today! :)

  20. What I like about the video is that the tent is big like the biggest tent in the world.
    What I dislike about this video is it takes too long for someone like me to do.

    • Thanks for sharing your comment, Erick! We bet the circus is very cool in Russia– we Wonder if there are a lot of differences between circuses in different countries? We hope you have a SUPER day! :)

  21. We liked today’s wonder a lot. It reminded us of The One and Only Ivan because they are in the big top mall and video arcade with a circus theme.

    Kaden thinks tomorrow’s wonder will be about a jungle. JC thinks tomorrow’s wonder will be about an author’s imagination. Bella thinks it will be about a zoo. Max thinks it might be a reptile house.

    • We’re celebrating because our Wonder Friends from Mrs. Ski’s PM class are here– WOHOO! :)

      We are so glad that you mentioned the connection between “The One and Only Ivan” and today’s Wonder! SO many Wonder Friends have been talking about that story, as well as “When the Circus Came to Town”! We always love when our Wonder Friends mention their favorite books– we LOVE to read!

      Thanks for sharing your SUPER guesses for tomorrow’s Wonder, Kaden, JC, Bella, and Max! We are very proud of your great, creative ideas! See you tomorrow! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your comment, Joey! It’s cool to imagine how many people it takes to put up such a large tent! :)

    • Thanks for joining us to Wonder today, Gina M! We appreciate your comment, even if the circus isn’t your favorite topic to Wonder about! :) We hope to see you again soon! :)

  22. We think tomorrow’s Wonder will be about bugs, endangered animals, ocean animals or animals that live in the desert.
    Thanks for the Wonder!
    This class wants to know why the circus tent was in fast motion?

    • Thanks for sharing your great guesses, Mrs. Thomas’ Tigers! We are glad that you have been context clues to form your guesses! :)

      The video from today’s Wonder uses a technique called “time lapse”– it means that the clip is shown faster than it actually happened. This way, time lapsed videos can show us a LOT of activity in a much shorter period of time. We Wonder how long the circus set up really took…?

      Hope to see you tomorrow, Wonder Friends! :)

  23. I have been to a Ringling Brothers circus. It was a lot of fun. I have also gone a few times to a circus called Circus Smirkus. It is a circus made up of only kids!! They do all sorts of tricks and acrobatics. They are awesome!!!

    • WOW, you have had a TON of cool circus experiences, Patrick R! Thanks for sharing them with the rest of our Wonder community! We bet it was cool to see kids your age participating in the circus acrobatics, too! VERY COOL! :)

  24. Do you like cheese I do!!!!!!!!! I loved today’s wonder. I think tomorrow’s wonder is going to be about anteaters because they look interesting and eat and do stuff interesting. Bye-bye wonderopolis.

    • Thanks for sharing your enthusiastic comment today, Ethan B! We sure hope you come back tomorrow to see if your guess matches our Wonder of the Day®! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your comment about the big top today, Kamron! We are glad to be WONDERing with you about the circus– we hope you are able to attend one day! :)

    • We’re so happy to hear you liked our circus Wonder, Chilly the Penguin! We hope you learned something WONDERful today! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What can you find under the Big Top?
  • Who is the father of the modern circus?
  • Can you put on your own circus?

Wonder Gallery

circus big top tent shutterstock_16038412Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Ready to put on your very own circus? Even if you have a tent for camping, it’s probably not big enough to be a “Big Top.” So grab a few friends and family members and get ready to make your own homemade circus in the backyard!

You’ll need to decide what acts you’ll include in your circus performance. If you have a play set in the backyard, perhaps someone can amaze the audience with daring tricks with the swings or monkey bars.

Can you juggle? What about some simple magic tricks? If you have a family pet, you’ll certainly want to include an amazing animal act.

Have fun dreaming up your very own unique circus acts. Put on a show for family members or neighbors. Invite the whole neighborhood! If you’re ambitious, sell popcorn and lemonade and make it an annual event!

Still Wondering

Head over to ArtsEdge to read Send in the Clowns, which describes the first modern circus staged in London, England.

Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day is chock full of all sorts of interesting creatures!

Upload a Photo or Paste the URL of a YouTube or SchoolTube Video.