First modern circus is staged

First modern circus is staged

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Englishman Philip Astley stages the first modern circus in London.

Trick riders, acrobats, clowns, trained animals, and other familiar components of the circus have existed throughout recorded history, but it was not until the late 18th century that the modern spectacle of the circus was born. Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, found that if he galloped in a tight circle, centrifugal force allowed him to perform seemingly impossible feats on a horse’s back. He drew up a ring and on January 9, 1768, invited the public to see him wave his sword in the air while he rode with one foot on the saddle and one on the horse’s head.

Astley’s trick riding received such a favorable response that he soon hired other equestrians, a clown, and musicians and in 1770 built a roof over his ring and called the structure Astley’s Amphitheatre. In 1772, Astley went to Versailles to perform his “daring feats of horsemanship” before King Louis XV, and he found France ripe for a permanent show of its own, which he founded in 1782. Also in 1782, a competitor in London set up shop just down the road from Astley’s Amphitheatre, calling his show the “Royal Circus,” after the Roman name for the circular theaters where chariot races were held. In the 19th century, the term “circus” was adopted as a generic name for this new form of entertainment. Astley, who lived until 1814, eventually established 18 other circuses in cities across Europe.

In 1792, English equestrian John Bill Ricketts opened the first American circus in Philadelphia and later opened others in New York City and Boston. President George Washington reportedly attended a Ricketts circus and sold the company a horse. Smaller traveling circuses arose in Europe in the early 19th century, visiting towns and cities that lacked elaborate permanent shows. Larger traveling tent shows evolved in the 1820s. In 1859, the Cirque Napoleon in Paris offered the first “flying trapeze” act, which remains a popular component of the modern circus.

In 1871, William Cameron Coup and showman P.T. Barnum opened an enormous circus in Brooklyn that they dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Ten years later, Barnum went into business with James Anthony Bailey; the “Barnum and Bailey” circuses were so large they required simultaneous performances in three rings.

10 Amazing Circus Families

The names pass from generation to generation: Wallenda. Bertini. Cortes. Anastasini. They're some of the world's famous circus families, and have been for decades. Centuries even. You might think the somewhat vagabond lifestyle of a circus performer would lose its appeal in these modern times. But for many in these vaunted families, it absolutely does not.

"I was never interested in not performing," Alida Wallenda Cortes told PBS. A seventh-generation circus performer, her ancestors come from three prominent European circus families -- the Wallendas, the Zoppés and the Bertinis.

Why are there so many multigenerational circus performers? The circus becomes a way of life, and performers from circus dynasties often marry each other. Plus, the job is so time-consuming -- with copious amounts of practicing, performing and traveling -- that performing with your family members is sort of obligatory if you want to see them [source: PBS].

Circus life must also get in your blood. And stay there. Alberto Zoppé, who brought his family's famed Italian circus to America in the mid-twentieth century, died at 86. The bareback rider was performing up until he was 85. And Karl Wallenda, head of the Flying Wallendas, was still walking the high wire when he died at age 73 [sources: Ponsi, Wallenda].

Let's take a look at some of the more notable circus families out there today.

The Caveagna family is on its way to multigenerational circus prominence. A comical-musical clowning group, the fun began in Italy with patriarch Elicio Caveagna. Elicio was both a talented musician and skilled clown, so he combined these two skills in an act he performed for Circo Nando Orfei, a famed Italian circus. Eventually Elicio trained his son, Artidoro, to follow in his clown-musician shoes, and Artidoro, in turn, passed on the skills to his sons Jones and Steve [source: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey].

Today the Clowning Caveagna Family -- Artidoro, Jones and Steve -- performs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, interspersing trumpet and saxophone tunes with traditional silly clowning antics. The act also has performed throughout Europe, both in circus festivals and as part of other circuses, such as Switzerland's renowned Circus Nock [source: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey].

The Clarke circus dynasty stretches back to the very beginning of modern circus-hood. In the early 19th century, famed horseman John Clarke began to work for Englishman Phillip Astley, the gent credited with inventing the modern circus in the late 1700s. (A quick aside -- supposedly Clarke served as the model for Sleary, the circus owner in Charles Dickens' novel "Hard Times.") Clarke's family continued on in the circus business, with his grandsons creating a popular aerial act that was brought over the pond to America's Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903. Two of the grandsons, Ernest and Charles Clarke, perfected the triple back-somersault in 1909 [sources: Jando, The Telegraph].

Although the family act broke up during World War II, when the men were called to serve their country, Ernest's daughter, Ernestine, soldiered on alone. Ernestine was a talented bareback rider and trapeze artist hired by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She was so talented, the company gave her a solo riding spot in its show, plus her own flying act. Ernestine left the circus in the 1950s to raise the two daughters she had with husband Parley Baer, a circus performer and actor. Both girls followed in their mother's footsteps, becoming trapeze artists. In 1962, the Clarke family was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame for their collective bareback skills, and in 1967 Ernestine was inducted on her own [sources: International Circus Hall of Fame, The Telegraph].

Nelson is not this famous circus family's real surname. It's Hobson. But when actor Robert Hobson and his family left England for the United States in 1868 and formed a family acrobatic act, Hobson dubbed it Professor Nelson and Sons as an homage to his former stage partner. The troupe expanded over time, incorporating other performers in addition to family members. Soon they were called The Great Nelson Family, and then The Flying Nelsons, due to their incredible acrobatic skills [source: Mount Clemens Public Library].

Not surprisingly given their talents, the family starred in circuses around the globe and in every major American circus, including the Cole Brothers and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Hollywood soon came calling. In 1928, Hobson's granddaughter, Hilda, was tapped to teach actor Lon Chaney to walk the wire in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" in the same film, she was Loretta Young's double on the wire. The entire troupe also appeared in the 1928 comedy "Circus Rookies." The Nelson-Hobsons largely all retired by 1935, although some descendants continued to perform individually with various circuses for decades [sources: IMDB, Mount Clemens Public Library].

Many people are familiar with the Flying Wallendas, not surprising, since family members regularly perform newsworthy acts. To wit, Nik Wallenda's 2014 partially blindfolded tightrope walk between two Chicago skyscrapers, 600 feet (182 meters) in the air [source: Grinberg].

The family got its start in the late 18th century, operating a mini-circus in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Family members performed as acrobats, clowns, aerialists, jugglers and animal trainers. Fast-forward to the 20th century: Descendant Karl Wallenda and his family, then known as the Great Wallendas, starred in America's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The family soon gained notoriety after creating a seven-person chair pyramid performed on the high wire without safety harnesses or a net [source: Wallenda].

The Wallendas performed their pyramid trick for more than a decade until 1962, when, tragically, the pyramid collapsed. Two people died and Karl's son, Mario, was paralyzed. After patriarch Karl died at age 73 from a fall off the wire, the family became as well known for its tragedies as its triumphs. But the Wallendas persevered. In 2001, they snagged a Guinness World Record by creating the world's first and only 10-person pyramid on the tightrope. The name "Flying Wallendas," incidentally, came from a newspaper headline in the mid-20th century that, ironically, described four family members' graceful fall from the wire in that case they were unhurt [source: Wallenda].

11 Facts About the History of Circus Elephants

This month, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the nation’s largest, announced that it would stop using elephants in its shows by May, retiring its 11 remaining circus elephants to its 200-acre elephant sanctuary in Florida. The circus had previously pledged to end its elephant acts by 2018.

Cities across the U.S. have passed regulations prohibiting elephant acts or the use of bullhooks (commonly used to discipline and control circus elephants), making it difficult for the circus to tour with its elephant performers. For decades, animal-rights organizations have been lobbying to end the use of elephants in entertainment shows, citing abuse and misconduct of the highly intelligent animals at the hands of trainers and circuses, particularly Ringling and its parent company, Feld Entertainment.

Elephants have been a major draw (and thus, source of revenue) for circuses and other exhibitions since the first Asian elephant arrived in New York City from India in 1796, as natural history filmmaker Ronald Tobias explains in his 2013 book Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America. For more than 200 years, Americans have been enthralled by the giant creatures, sometimes at the expense of the animals’ welfare. Here are 11 things you might not know about the long history of circus elephants in America.


In 1805, Hachaliah Bailey bought an elephant thinking that he would plow his fields like a horse. But she ate too much to make her a worthwhile farm animal, so instead he decided to take her on the road as a spectacle. He charged people 25 to 50 cents to see her, and hid her behind a curtain so that non-customers couldn’t get a free peek. Bailey is now known as the father of the American circus.


“Alcohol was the vice of choice for elephants,” Tobias writes in Behemoth. “They drank beer and wine but preferred bourbon and Tennessee whiskey when they could get it.” In 1922, a circus elephant named Tusko escaped and went on a rampage in Sedro-Wooley, Washington. After crushing a Model T and running through backyards, he burst into a local bar, and feasted on a big batch of sour mash. By the time he was caught, he had pushed a house off its foundation, knocked down walls, and crushed or overturned 20 cars.


As a handful of 1939 experiments showed, elephants aren’t naturally afraid of mice, as the stereotype suggests. However, early circus elephants learned to be terrified of scurrying rodents. Their feet and tails would regularly get chewed on by rats during the night. London zoo worker Matthew Scott wrote in the mid-19th century of his elephant charge, Jumbo: “Very often in the dead of night I have been awakened by poor Jumbo’s groans, as if in pain and trouble, and, when I hastened to see what was the matter, I have beheld the rats by hundreds gnawing his hoofs, and snapping viciously at his legs and tail.”


The London Zoo later sold that same rat-gnawed elephant, Jumbo, to American circus master P.T. Barnum (creating an international controversy at the time). Barnum had a gift for exaggeration, and he oversold the elephant as the biggest in the country when he arrived in 1882, despite the fact that he was about the same size as several other bulls in show business at the time. But Jumbo became so famous that his name became synonymous with “supersized.” While the word jumbo initially meant a socially inept goof, Jumbo the elephant made it synonymous with bulk, eventually leading to jumbo as a marketing tool—the jumbo jet, the Jumbotron, etc.


The rival showmen joined forces because Bailey needed more money, and Barnum needed the draw of a baby elephant. In 1880, a 15-year-old elephant gave birth to the second-ever elephant calf born on American soil, a female named Columbia. She was owned by James Bailey, an upstart circus owner who was fast becoming the biggest rival of established ringmaster P.T. Barnum. Columbia was such a huge draw for circus-goers that Barnum offered to buy her for $100,000. Bailey refused, and eventually Barnum offered him a sweeter deal: to partner up. Thus the Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson’s Consolidated Great London Circus & Sanger’s Royal British Menageries and the International Allied Show, also known as the Greatest Show on Earth.


Early circuses had to travel from one town to the other on foot, and when it came to crossing rivers, not every bridge was equipped to handle the weight of one or more 5-ton elephants. While many late 19th century circuses chose to ford their animals across rivers rather than test rickety Colonial bridges, some elephants did die crashing through unstable wooden spans. But when a bridge could hold an elephant, it reassured people that it could withstand anything. In 1884, the managers of the Brooklyn Bridge—where, the year before, there had been a fatal stampede caused by fears that the bridge was collapsing—decided to let P.T. Barnum and his menagerie cross toll-free, during the middle of the day. He marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across the bridge in an act that reassured people that the bridge wouldn’t collapse, even under the weight of the biggest crowds.


Elephants regularly killed their trainers and keepers, other animals, and even innocent bystanders. Male elephants go through a months-long hormonal change called musth, during which they produce up to 60 times more testosterone than usual and become extremely aggressive, and early elephant trainers were unprepared for dealing with the giant animals’ behavioral volatility. Out-of-control elephants from zoos and circuses gored people, threw them into the air, intentionally crushed them underfoot, and sometimes even pushed cars on top of them in fits of rage. Bullets are no match for their thick skin, so there was often no way to stop the unpredictable violence. Nor is elephant violence just a historical problem: Even today, elephant keepers are killed by their elephants.


At the turn of the century, an English court charged a bull elephant named Charley with murder for killing his abusive former trainer. He was acquitted, but other elephants didn’t get off so easily. In 1916, an elephant named Mary killed one of her handlers, and the town of Kingston, Tennessee charged her with first-degree murder. She was later hanged.


In 1902, a show elephant named Gypsy was executed by her owner after she killed her trainer, her fourth victim. After she was shot, several people who witnessed the execution cut off parts of her body to take home. In 1907, another longtime circus elephant, Columbia, was killed after her keeper decided she was too dangerous. Her teeth were turned into paperweights, and her skin into leather gloves and shoes.


After he retired from the circus life, Barnum kept a single elephant. He’d have one of his farmhands take it out into a field and start plowing every time a nearby train went by. His elephant wasn’t a working part of the farm—it was all for show—but Barnum started a trend with actual farmers, who began investing in elephants as plow animals, and circus managers, who started making use of their stock in the off-season.


In the early 1900s, Barnum & Bailey’s chief elephant trainer decided to teach his charges how to play ball. He taught an elephant named Pilot to swing a bat, and another, named Bessie, to use a mitt. After two years of effort, he taught another elephant, Coco, to pitch. In 1912, they played their first game. Elephant baseball was a popular enough attraction that Ringling created its own team with nine pachyderm players, and other circuses later followed suit.

10 Circus Acts That Have Withstood the Test of Time

Before we get into the acts that have made the circus a hit for centuries (and some might argue millennia), let's first doff our caps to the real hero of the ring: cotton candy.

We can't exactly claim cotton candy was invented in, say, ancient Rome and was enjoyed by folks watching lions tear people apart in the Colosseum. (Big events held in amphitheaters were called circuses, but "circus" simply meant "circle" in Latin [source: Parkinson et al].) But the sticky, sweet stuff was sold at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and soon became a circus staple [source: Historic Hudson Valley]. It's easy to tease its inventor, William Morrison, since he ironically was a dentist and initially called the candy "Fairy Floss."

But let's assume cotton candy shares the characteristic of so many circus acts that have stood the test of time: A little marketing goes a long way to excite the public. And speaking of stirring intrigue, our first entry does just that.

Since the 19th century, the sideshow — which featured people with unusual appearances or talents and sometimes paraded offensive stereotypes — has been a part of circus culture [source: Victoria and Albert Museum]. And lest you think it's an act of the past, be assured that there are still numerous traveling shows that exhibit performers. The message has rightfully changed: A lot of the shows these days are progressive acts of empowerment. The performers might be entertaining, but education and acceptance is a powerful tool in contemporary sideshows.

That being said, sideshows of the past were often problematic, to say the least. For one, they might be as simple as showing off a member of an ethnic or racial group seen in the Western world as "exotic" or "bizarre." People born with disabilities or physical conditions were also presented as oddities, and to get away with presenting these folks as specimens, circuses might couch descriptions of the performance with pseudo-scientific language.

Since a lot of us equate the circus with lion tamers and acrobats (and don't you worry, we'll get to those), it might surprise you to learn that the horse originally made the circus a hit. Phillip Astley was a former cavalry rider who opened a riding school in London in 1768 [source: Jando]. The big innovation at the place was the "circus," or ring, which allowed spectators to watch the riders perform tricks from every possible vantage point. It's not easy, after all, to have enough space for a straightaway where audience members can see. Astley's 42-foot (12.8-meter) diameter ring is still used as the standard measure for circuses [source: Jando].

Astley began putting on shows of equestrian stunts, drawing people to the ring with his animals' feats. By 1782 he had started a similar equestrian circus in Paris, and competitors began popping up [source: Jando]. However, the circus wasn't just a horse and pony show by now. To add a little excitement to the proceedings, Astley started adding in small little sketches between horse exhibitions.

Acrobats were one of the sketches between acts at Astley's circus, although their original skills were a blend of a couple of other acts we see today. While acrobatic performance has evolved into several different fields, it's worth noting that gymnastic or tumbling skills were a circus mainstay from the beginning.

Because British circuses were equestrian-focused, the first acrobats in the ring used their horses as props. In fact, in 1846 an acrobat named John H. Glenroy made circus history by performing the first somersault on horseback [source: Jando]. (If you want an entertaining account of a 7-year-old joining the circus, do look up Glenroy's autobiography.)

The other acrobatic arm of early circus acts was the floor acrobat who did tumbling or balancing acts. These early floor acrobats began incorporating humor into their performances by creating silly and funny characters. Comedy became a pretty lucrative draw once the circus introduced — you guessed it — clowns.

7. Josephine Clofullia – The Bearded Woman of Geneva (1827–1875)

The bearded lady has long been a staple of freak show exhibitions. Although plenty of these acts attracted their fair share of fame, ridicule and disbelief over the years, few lived a life as interesting and colourful as Josephine Clofullia. Born in a small Swiss village in 1831, Josephine was covered in fine fur at birth and she was already showing traces of beard growth by the age of two. Local doctors advised Josephine’s parents to take her to Geneva for treatment but the general prognosis was that the condition was permanent and shaving off the hair would make it grow back thicker. Josephine was sent away to boarding school but the confident, unique young girl quickly learned how to draw a crowd with the help of her six inch bushy beard. With her father in tow acting as her agent, Josephine toured around Europe from the age of 14 and found considerable fame when she fashioned her beard like that of Napoleon III and received diamonds from the French leader. She fell in love with a talented young French painter and the two wed and had a healthy, similarly hairy young boy in 1851. The family moved to New York so that Josephine could work in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and it wasn’t long before Josephine was the subject of a media frenzy when allegations that she was actually a man surface (despite having given birth to a son). It was rumoured that Barnum himself had instigated the trial for commercial gain which, if true, certainly worked as Josephine (along with her hirsute young son) entertained more than 3 million people while working for him.


Philip Astley: The Father Of The Modern Circus

In 1768, Astley settled in London and opened a riding-school near Westminster Bridge, where he taught in the morning and performed his "feats of horsemanship" in the afternoon. In London at this time, modern commercial theater (a word that encompassed all sorts of performing arts) was in the process of developing. Astley's building featured a circular arena that he called the circle, or circus, and which would later be known as the ring.

The circus ring, however, was not Astley's invention it was devised earlier by other performing trick Any specific exercise in a circus act. -riders. In addition to allowing audiences to keep sight of the riders during their performances (something that was next to impossible if the riders were forced to gallop in a straight line), riding in circles in a ring also made it possible, through the generation of centrifugal force, for riders to keep their balance while standing on the back of galloping horses. Astley's original ring was about sixty-two feet in diameter. Its size was eventually settled at a diameter of forty-two feet, which has since become the international standard for all circus rings.

The Circus Is Born

Astley opened Paris's first circus, the Amphithéâtre Anglois, in 1782. That same year, his first competitor arose: equestrian Charles Hughes (1747-97), a former member of Astley's company. In association with Charles Dibdin, a prolific songwriter and author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheater and riding-school in London, the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. The first element of this rather grandiose title was to be adopted as a generic name for the new form of entertainment, the circus. In 1793, Hughes went to perform to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia that same year, one of his pupils, British equestrian John Bill Ricketts (1769-1802), opened the first circus in the United States, in Philadelphia. In 1797, Ricketts also established the first Canadian circus, in Montréal. His only competition in America, the British equestrian Philip Lailson (who came to the U.S. in 1795), brought the circus to Mexico in 1802.

Circus performances were originally given in circus buildings. Although at first these were often temporary wooden structures, every major European city soon boasted at least one permanent circus, whose architecture could compete with the most flamboyant theaters. Similar buildings were also erected in the New World's largest cities: New York, Philadelphia, Montréal, Mexico City, et al. Although buildings would remain the choice setting for circus performances in Europe well into the twentieth century, the circus was to adopt a different format in the United States.

The American Traveling Circus

In the early nineteenth century, the United States was a new, developing country with few cities large enough to sustain long-term resident circuses. Furthermore, settlers were steadily pushing the American frontier westward, establishing new communities in a process of inexorable expansion. To reach their public, showmen had little choice but to travel light and fast.

With that, the unique character of the American circus emerged: It was a traveling tent-show coupled with a menagerie and run by businessmen, a very different model from that of European circuses, which for the most part remained under the control of performing families.

In 1871, former museum promoter and impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), in association with circus entrepreneur William Cameron Coup (1837-95), launched the P.T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a traveling show whose "museum" part was an exhibition of animal and human oddities soon to become an integral part of the American circus, the Sideshow.

In 1872, Coup devised a system of daily transportation by rail for their circus. Another of Coup's innovations of that year was the addition of a second ring. The circus had become by far the most popular form of entertainment in America, and Barnum and Coup's enterprise was America's leading circus. Ever the businessman, Coup resolved to increase the capacity of their tent. Due to structural limitations, this could only be done effectively by increasing the tent's length, which resulted in hampering the view for large sections of the audience. The addition of a second ring, then a third (1881) and, later, up to seven rings and stages solved the problem physically, if not artistically. It could be argued that it changed the focus of the show to emphasize spectacle over artistry. For better or worse, multiple rings and stages became another unique feature of the American circus.

Circus Conquers the World

In 1836, the British equestrian Thomas Cooke visited the United States and brought back to England the American traveling-circus tent. This innovation was to ease the task of a group of European circus pioneers consumed by global ambitions. The most remarkable of these early touring companies was managed by the Italian equestrian Giuseppe Chiarini (1823-1897). In 1853, Chiarini left Europe for America, where he created his own circus and went to the unchartered territory (as far as circus was concerned) of Havana, then went to South America, crossed the Pacific, and landed in Japan in 1855. In 1864, he settled in Mexico and toured Chile and Argentina before returning to Europe in 1869. In 1874, he went to China and then sailed to Brazil. In 1878, the company embarked on a tour of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Singapore, Java, Siam, India, and South America. And so it went, until the death of the intrepid Italian in Guatemala in 1897.

The French equestrian Louis Soullier (1813-1888), who managed Vienna's Circus at the Prater, toured the Balkans, settled for a time in Turkey, and then continued to China, where he introduced the circus in 1854. When he returned to Europe in 1866, he brought with him Chinese acrobats who in turn introduced traditional Chinese acts such as perch-pole Long perch held vertically on a performer's shoulder or forehead, on the top of which an acrobat executes various balancing figures. balancing, diabolo-juggling, plate-spinning, hoop-diving, et al., to Western audiences.

Another French equestrian, Jacques Tourniaire (1772-1829), went to Russia in 1816, where he established the first Russian circus. After his death, his sons Benoit and François followed in his footsteps, touring extensively in Siberia and traveling to India, China, and America.

European circus companies had ventured so far from home because they hoped to increase their profits. Their success in doing so was not lost on the handful of American circus entrepreneurs who would follow their lead.

Before entering into a partnership with P.T. Barnum in 1881, James Anthony Bailey (1847-1906) had embarked his Cooper & Bailey Circus on a trip to Honolulu, the Fiji Islands, Tasmania, the Dutch East Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and South America, a journey that lasted from 1876-78. After Barnum's death, Bailey took their Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show on Earth" on an extensive European tour, from 1897 to 1902, which introduced bewildered Europeans to P.T. Barnum's gargantuan vision of the circus as a touring show that traveled nightly by special trains and, every day, set up and tore down immense canvas tents that housed an amalgam of triplicate circus, zoological exhibition, and freak-show.

If the three-ring format and the sideshow met with only middling enthusiasm, European circus owners were nonetheless impressed by Barnum & Bailey's touring techniques, and menagerie owners, whose business was fading at the time, were quick to recognize the advantages of adding a traveling circus to their zoological exhibitions. Thus, the tented circus and menagerie developed in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.

When Bailey returned to the U.S. in 1902, he found his old market under the control of serious competition: the giant circus conglomerate created by the Ringling Brothers, Al (1832-1916), Otto (1837-1911), Alf T. (1863-1919), Charles (1864-1926), and John (1866-1936). One year after Bailey's death in 1906, the Ringlings acquired Barnum & Bailey, which they combined with their own circus in 1919 under the title Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

In Europe, the traveling circus and menagerie reached its peak between the two World Wars, especially in Germany, where the flamboyant traveling enterprises of Krone, Sarrasani and Hagenbeck dominated the market. In large cities, however, circus performances were still given in circus buildings Sarrasani had its own building in Dresden, Krone in Münich, Hagenbeck in Stellingen, and Paris alone maintained four permanent circuses. This, of course, created a demanding audience (in large cities, at least) who had grown accustomed to a degree of comfort and a fairly high level of production values in their elegant circus buildings. While in the U.S. the tenting techniques developed by W.C. Coup would remain practically unchanged for over a century, German and Italian tent-makers—and later French—constantly developed new systems for circus tents and seating, which eventually made some European traveling circuses nearly as comfortable and production-efficient as any permanent building.

Evolution of the Circus Performance

From its inception, the core of the circus performance had been equestrian acts ( trick Any specific exercise in a circus act. -riding, bareback acrobatics, dressage or High School, presentation of horses "at liberty "Liberty act", "Horses at liberty": Unmounted horses presented from the center of the ring by an equestrian directing his charges with his voice, body movements, and signals from a ''chambrière'' (French), or long whip. ," and even comedy on horseback) interspersed with acrobatic, balancing, and juggling acts. Dibdin and Hughes had added to that original fare the pantomime A circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). , a dramatic presentation which traditionally ended the performance and involved a good amount of tumbling, clowning (not necessarily mute), and equestrian displays. Pantomimes often reenacted famous battles which, true to Astley's spirit, gave equestrian performers a good opportunity to demonstrate "the different cuts and guards as in real action" or "a general engagement, sword in hand, with the different postures of offence, for the safety of man and horse. " [From an old Astley's handbill] Pantomimes remained extremely successful during the nineteenth century and survived under various forms well into the twentieth. The last notable circus pantomime A circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). was a spectacular adaptation of Lewis Wallace's Ben Hur which the French circus Gruss performed for several years in the 1960s.

Although in the middle of the nineteenth century equestrians, male and female, were still the true stars of the circus, acrobats began getting more and more attention. Not surprisingly, it started with acrobats on horseback, especially Americans such as John H. Glenroy, who accomplished the first somersault on horseback in 1846. "Floor" acrobats were also quick to make their mark. The best of them were often clowns. At first, circus clowns were essentially skilled parodists who might talk, sing, ride a horse, juggle, present trained animals, do balancing acts, or tumble. In the first half of the nineteenth century, an English clown Generic term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team. , Little Wheal, became famous for regularly performing a hundred consecutive somersaults in tempo—quite a feat, then or now.

By the close of the nineteenth century, railways and automobiles had begun to replace horses. Although major European circuses were still operated by equestrian families, equestrian displays were losing their supremacy to trainers of exotic animals (especially big cats), acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, and clowns. While some trained exotic animals had appeared early in circus history—around 1812 at Paris's Cirque Olympique, the Franconis presented Kioumi, the first trained elephant—it was the European combination of circus and menagerie that triggered the vogue of wild-animal presentations, which were developed in large part in Germany by the Hagenbecks, the world's foremost importers and dealers of exotic animals. Another significant transformation factor was a renewed interest in gymnastics and physical activities (which led to the resurrection of the Olympic Games in 1896) at a time when few gymnasts could be seen outside the circus.

The End of the Equestrian Circus

The most consequential early-twentieth-century innovation in the circus, however, occurred in Russia. In 1919, Lenin nationalized the Russian circuses, and the vast majority of their performers, natives of Western Europe, fled the country. Faced with the task of training a core of uniquely Russian performers, the Soviet government established, in 1927, the State College for Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School. Not only did the school rejuvenate the Russian circus, it also developed training methods modeled after sport-gymnastics, created original presentations with the help of directors and choreographers, and even originated innovative techniques and apparatuses that led to the invention of entirely new kinds of acts.

When, in the late 1950s, the Moscow Circus (a generic name adopted by all Soviet circus companies touring abroad) started showing in the West, those trained by the Soviet school contrasted favorably with those trained by the traditional circus families. Russian performers displayed originality, unparalleled artistry, and amazing technique, whereas the rest just repeated themselves in a desperate attempt to compete with both the Russian innovations and increasing competition from movies, radio, and television, which they did using the only weapons at their disposal: time-tested traditional acts. But resistance to change had transformed tradition into routine. The old circus families were losing touch with their audience's ever-transforming world.

Circus Today

There was obviously a strong planetary need for a circus renaissance: That same year (1974), in Adelaide, Australia, a young company of clowns, acrobats and aerialists that called itself "New Circus" began to perform and attract attention. It was followed a year later by the Soapbox Circus both companies merged in 1977, to become Circus Oz. Meanwhile, in 1975, Larry Pizoni and Peggy Snyder launched the grassroots Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, then the epicenter of the American counterculture movement.

Perhaps not coincidentally, all these changes came at a time when European intellectuals—mostly French—were fretting over the decline of the circus as a performing art. In 1975, Prince Rainier of Monaco (a longtime circus enthusiast) created the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo, whose Gold and Silver Clown awards would become to the circus world what the Oscar® is to the movie industry. It was followed in 1977 by Paris's Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow), created to showcase and promote a new generation of circus performers, mostly trained in circus schools.

In 1985, the French government created the Centre National des Arts du Cirque, a professional circus college on the Russian model. Other schools, often private not-for-profit entities and with varying degrees of professionalism, were established in England, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Brazil, and the U.S., among others, adding their numbers to the circus schools already in existence in the former Eastern Bloc.

Although China has a 2000-year-old acrobatic theater tradition of its own, its many troupes—similarly to their Russisan counterparts—developed new training method]]s after the Communist revolution and found themselves welcome participants in the circus renaissance. Director Valentin Gneushev (certainly the most influential director in the contemporary circus) opened his own studio in post-communist Moscow, while others opened specialized schools, like André Simard's aerial-act studio, Les Gens d'R, in Canada.

The surge of teaching activity also led to the creation of a multitude of avant-garde and experimental circus companies, especially in England, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada (some of them extremely successful, such as the French "heavy metal" circus Archaos), as well as to a recent revival of the old variety theater, especially in Germany with the resurgence of German " varieté (German, from the French: ''variété'') A German variety show whose acts are mostly circus acts, performed in a cabaret atmosphere. Very popular in Germany before WWII, Varieté shows have experienced a renaissance since the 1980s. ". At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the circus, which has always been a highly adaptable performing art, is undergoing cosmetic changes and a new expansion.


There are many different acts in circuses. Some people do acrobatics and gymnastics. Often a group of gymnasts will finish up standing on top of one another in a pyramid. The gymnasts may also do jumping acts on trampolines. Some people are jugglers, throwing things in the air and catching them. There may be people who walk on stilts or who ride on unicycles. They may perform magic which may include swordswallowing, knife throwing or fireeating. There are always clowns who do funny things to make people laugh. They trip over things and fall over, throw buckets of water over one another or put custard pies into one another’s faces. Sometimes these clowns are also very skilful acrobats, musicians or jugglers. They may pretend to be stupid at first, but they often show that they are very clever.

Animal acts

During the last two centuries, and until recently, the modern circus used many kinds of animals. There were wild animals such as lions, tigers or bears. There may also have been camels, horses, elephants, sea lions and domestic animals such as dogs. In recent years people have changed their ideas. They think that it is unkind to make wild animals perform tricks that are unnatural to them. Many of their trainers used cruel methods to teach these animals to do tricks, e.g. hitting the animals, giving them electric shocks or causing pain in other ways. The animals were always touring around, living in tiny cages. Many countries now do not want to see wild animals in circuses.

15 Phenomenal Female Circus Performers

For many the circus is a place of wonder and fantasy come alive. But for these 15 women, it was their workplace, their home, and the platform for their legacies.


Sometimes referred to as Maria Spelterina, this buxom beauty became the first woman to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls on July 8, 1876, when she was just 23. The wire she walked was only 2½ inches wide.

This insane stunt was just the first in a series meant to celebrate America's centennial. Four days later she returned, making the treacherous crossing again, but this time with peach baskets bound to her feet. A week later she came back and did it with a paper bag over her head as a blindfold. Three days after that, Spelterini tightrope walked across the Niagara gorge with her wrists and ankles in shackles.

She also did this treacherous trek backwards, and used the thin wire as a stage, dancing and skipping across its 1000 foot length. Her elegance in these endeavors was described by a local paper as "traveling the gossamer web with a graceful, confident step, which soon allayed all apprehension of an impending disaster."


Born into a family of Austrian circus performers, Katharina Brumbach performed feat-of-strength acts throughout her childhood. At over six feet tall and weighing 187 pounds by the time she was a teen, Katie was soon wrestling men who'd risk the ring with her for the possibility of a 100-marks prize. She not only won every bout, but also her husband, Max Heymann. He happily joined her family's business, helping in promotions and sometimes allowing himself and their infant son to be hoisted up by Katie's mighty arm.

Katie's greatest challenge came at the hands of strongman Eugene Sandow. In New York City, her promotional stunt pitched that no man could lift more weight than this strongwoman. Sandow took that bet and lost when Katie pushed 300 pounds over her head with one hand. (Sandow only managed to get it to his chest.) From there, Katie changed her stage name to a feminine version of Sandow, so that no one would soon forget her Herculean strength.


Petite and pretty acrobat and tightrope walker Rosa Richter (billed as Zazel) was just 16 years old when she made history at the Royal Aquarium. There, she slid into a massive cannon mouth and allowed herself to be blasted 70 feet into the air, high above the dazzled spectators. This stunt was a collaboration with her mentor, celebrated tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt. He had concocted a device that would give the illusion of a cannon shot, while keeping Zazel from being blown to bits.

Fireworks were set off to give the impression of a cannon's explosion Zazel's flight depended on springs and tension hidden within the metal barrel. As this trick caught on, Hunt's device was abandoned in favor of compressed air, which lessened the risks considerably. But this came too late for Zazel after a long string of successful stunts, she flew past the safety net and broke her back, which forced her into retirement and, ultimately, obscurity.


By the time she was a teen, Phoebe Ann Moses' shooting skills were so advanced that she was putting them on public display to help her beloved mother pay off her mortgage. In 1875, Moses bested celebrated marksman Frank E. Butler in a shooting competition, and not long after, these rivals wed. In the 1880s, Moses took the stage name Annie Oakley and began touring professionally with her husband, and in 1885, she joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, where she performed for 15 years as a top attraction.

One of her most popular stunts was shooting the lit tip off a cigarette being held in her husband's lips. She even performed this trick for Kaiser Wilhelm II, with the King of Prussia taking Butler's place. Her fame brought her grand introductions to royals and world leaders like Queen Victoria and Sitting Bull, who gave her the name "Little Sure Shot."

By the time World War I rolled around, Oakley had retired. She sought to organize a group of female shootists to form a special sharpshooting unit, but her petition was ignored. It's also said that she reached out to Wilhelm II, asking pointedly for a second shot that request too went ignored. Finally, Oakley turned her efforts into raising money for the Red Cross. When she passed away in 1926, the whole of America mourned the loss of this iconic cowgirl.


As Maud Stevens, this Kansas girl was an aerialist and contortionist who traveled the U.S. in circus troops. But it was a chance meeting at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1907 that inked her place in history. It was there that Maud met Gus Wagner, a charismatic tattoo artist who described himself as "the most artistically marked up man in America."

Maud was intrigued by his craft, and offered to exchange a date with her future husband for a lesson in how to tattoo. This is how she got her first of many, as well as her start as a tattoo artist. The Wagners went on to tour as artists and "tattooed attractions," and later trained their daughter Lovetta in the art of tattooing. Nowadays, Maud is credited as the first female tattooist in the United States.


At 16, the Quebec-born Antoinette Comeau was living in a convent when her biological sister, Gertrude "Mickey" King, urged her to join her at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Around this time, the aspiring aerialist met Arthur Concello, who'd been trained on the trapeze since he was 10 years old. The pair married in 1928, and formed The Flying Concellos.

Their act was one of Ringling's most popular attractions, earning Antoinette the billing "greatest woman flyer of all time." She's also credited with being the first woman to ever pull off a triple somersault in the air. These claims to fame attracted the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille, who hired her to train Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, and Dorothy Lamour for his circus-centered drama The Greatest Show On Earth. She and her husband both appeared in the film. After decades that made up a long and storied career, Antoinette retired from her role as Ringling's aerial director in 1983.


This circus performer took her act to the literal next level. Forget the tents and nets—American daredevil Leona Dare (born Susan Adeline Stuart) became a sensation across Europe in the late 19 th century for hanging by her teeth from the bottom of an ascending hot air balloon.

She also scored headlines for romantic scandals and occasional falls, including one that accidentally caused the death of her performance partner, Monsieur George. But from all of these lows, Dare rose again. Her most famous "iron jaw" performance was held 5000 feet over the Crystal Palace in London in 1888, leading to a tour en route to Moscow. By the 1890s, Dare and her iron jaw had more or less retired.


The facts of Mabel Stark's early life are obscured by much showmanship and manufactured mystique. But Stark (formerly Mary Haynie) found her way into circus life after training as a nurse, a discipline that would later prove quite useful. She was tenacious in her rise up the animal training ranks at her most daring, she was commanding 18 tigers at a time.

Stark developed some seedy secrets for her most popular stunt, a fake mauling by her hand-raised tiger Rajah, whose behavior during this act was actually more sexual than sinister. But danger was never far, as Stark acknowledged a tiger is never truly "tame." In her career she survived three major maulings and many minor ones. Yet she never blamed the animals for the attacks and maintained that death by tiger would be her preferred way to go.


As a working-class German twenty-something, Ursula Blütchen's entry into the circus was far from glamorous. In 1952, she took a cleaning job at the East German Circus Busch. There, she hit it off with an animal trainer, who began to show her the ways of this treacherous trade.

Though only five-foot one-inch tall, Blütchen was drawn to the towering polar bears. She named each one, and is said to have treated them as if they were her children. Her act grew to include 14 polar bears and four Kodiaks, earning her a reputation as one of the world's most remarkable animal trainers. After a retirement tour in 1998, Blütchen found new homes for her beloved bears, placing them in German zoos.


Because her parents owned the small operation Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome, Barbara's circus career began in the 1930s, when she was just a girl. She trained as an aerialist and leopard tamer before meeting her future husband, William "Buckles" Woodcock, who came from a long line of elephant trainers. Together the pair created an act of their own, combining his skills and her showmanship. Barbara added panache to their packaging by coming up with fantastical costumes for herself, William, and their precious pachyderms. The act was a hit, earning them a place with the Big Apple Circus from 1982 to 2000, and even an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965.

Following in family tradition, the Woodcocks brought their children into the fold within her parents' circus. By four months old, Barbara's son Ben (from a previous marriage) was on the back of his first elephant. Later, he and his younger sisters, Shannon and Dalilah, would find a role in their parents' elephant acts.


Gladys Roy's three brothers were pilots for Northwest Airlines, but this Minnesota daredevil made her mark in aviation on the wings of planes. Roy built a name for herself by barnstorming, wing walking, parachuting from 100 to 16,000 feet, and dancing the Charleston on the wings of planes in flight. But she might be best remembered for playing tennis with Ivan Unger on the wing of a biplane. Well, pretending to play (no real ball was involved).

At the height of her popularity, Roy was earning between $200 and $500 per performance (that's $2600 to $6700 in today's dollars). But by May of 1926, she was lucky to get $100 for her stunts, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Of late the crowds are beginning to tire of even my most difficult stunts and so I must necessarily invent new ones, that is, I want to hold my reputation as a dare-devil. Eventually an accident will occur and then . "

It was an airplane accident that took Roy's life at the age of 25, but not in the air. Moments after snapping a publicity shot near her plane, a distracted Roy walked right into the still-spinning propeller.


Though it was her long beard that drew crowds, it was Annie Jones' charm and musical talents that made her the most celebrated bearded lady of her time. Born with a bit of a beard, Jones was still in diapers when she won the attention of P.T. Barnum. He paid her parents a hefty sum ($150 a week in the late 1860s) for the right to put little Annie in his show as "The Esau Infant" ("Esau" being a biblical name that translates to "hairy"). She attracted much attention, but not all of it positive.

Once, when her mother left Annie in the care of a nanny, she was kidnapped by a phrenologist, who presumably wanted to study the bumps on the hirsute girl's head. Thankfully, Jones was unharmed and quickly recovered. As she grew from Esau Infant to Esau Child to Esau Lady, her mother was forever more at her side.


Theirs was an act that played a bit like burlesque, minus the stripping. New York-born sisters Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary, and Dora Sutherland were gifted singers who, at their father's urging, moved off his struggling turkey farm and onto the stage in the 1880s. While their act began with singing, it was their big reveal that had audiences flocking and P.T. Barnum calling them “the seven most pleasing wonders of the world.”

As their grand finale, the seven sisters would undo their updos to unfurl seven feet of long, lustrous hair. There was something provocative to this display that had men in awe and women feeling envious. Their father, Fletcher, took advantage by peddling Sutherland Sisters Hair Fertilizer, which brought in $90,000 in its first year. The massive popularity of this and similarly themed products allowed the girls to retire. And just in time, too, as hair trends soon turned shorter when bobs became the haircut du jour. Sadly, wealth did not bring happiness to the Sutherlands, who would long be plagued by scandals over frivolous spending, drug use, alleged witchcraft, and tawdry romances.


While conjoined twins have become an icon of circus sideshows, none reached the kind of mainstream celebrity of Daisy and Violet Hilton. Born to an unmarried barmaid in 1908, the British babes were taken in by Mary Hilton, the midwife who delivered them. It was Mary who trained the girls in singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments, and she who introduced them to the circus life by age three. In return, she took all of the girls' earnings for 20 years, until they sued.

Daisy and Violet went on to become some of the highest paid talents on the vaudeville circuit, pulling in $5000 a week. They found some success in Hollywood, appearing in Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks, which showed the humanity and tenacity of the people who made up sideshows, and starred in the 1952 B-movie Chained For Life, about one twin committing murder, forcing both to go on trial. When they fell on hard times, the sisters turned to burlesque, but by the 1960s their stage career had stalled out completely. From there, Daisy and Violet took up work in a grocery store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their story was revisited in 2012 in the documentary Bound by Flesh.


While many sideshow acts featured people born with abnormalities, Kittie Smith's condition was the product of an abusive childhood. In 1891, when Smith was nine years old, she refused to make dinner for her drunk father. As punishment, he held her arms to the lit stove until they were so badly damaged that amputation was necessary. Subsequently, she was made a ward of the state, while her father escaped jail time because of "lack of evidence."

Dr. F. M. Gregg was so moved by the girl's story that he began an educational fund for Smith, which paid for a specialized staff to teach her how to function without her arms. Smith thrived, becoming skilled in writing, painting, embroidery, and piano playing with her feet. When the fund was exhausted, she made her own way by performing at Coney Island and with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She also sold her drawings and a self-penned memoir. Notably, in this autobiography, Smith completed what might be her greatest feat by forgiving her father. She literally rewrote her own history, claiming she lost her arms from falling into a fire.

 History of the Fairground

Travelling fairs are 'the unwritten portion of the story of the people, bound to the life of a nation by the ties of religion, trade and pleasure'. The tradition is living and dynamic and reflects the influence of the popular culture in which it operates and in many cases it predates the history of the town or settlement in which it appears.

There are three main types of fairs, ‘Prescriptive Fairs’ which were based on the principle of trading and were stablished by custom, ‘Charter Fairs’, which were granted and protected by Royal Charter and ‘Mop Fairs’ which developed mainly in agricultural regions for the hiring of labourers, followed a week later by the ‘Runaway Mops’ which gave employers a chance to reconsider their decision and re-hire if necessary. New categories of fairs still continue developing, for instance in recent years there has been a revival of ‘City Centre Fairs’ which bring the fairground back to the people and the heart of their cities.

The majority of fairs held in the United Kingdom trace their ancestry back to charters and privileges granted in the Medieval period. In the thirteenth century, the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread, with the Crown making every attempt to create new fairs and to bring existing ones under their jurisdiction. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the majority of English fairs had been granted charters and were reorganised to fall in line with their European counterparts. The granting of charters however did not necessarily grant the right to hold a fair: it was in effect the control of revenues for the Crown in return for the control and organisation to stay with a particular town, abbey or village. Between 1199 and 1350 over fifteen hundred charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs.

Fairs could also be claimed by prescriptive right in that they were never granted a charter but were allowed to take place by the King or his representative in the borough, due to their long term establishment.

The start of hiring fairs or mops can be traced to the fourteenth century with the passing of the Statute of Labourers in 1351 by Edward III. These Statute fairs or Mops, as they are known in the Midlands, still continued in their original purpose until the end of the nineteenth century. The description of wife-selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy has as its origin an incident of wife-selling at the nearby village of Andover in 1817. However, even with these hiring fairs the original purpose of the event was soon superseded by the amusement side, with over three quarters of the East Riding Hiring fairs in Yorkshire failing to survive into the twentieth century. Despite the failure of these fairs to continue in strength in the twentieth century, the Mop Fairs held in Studley, Stratford, Warwick, Burton, and Loughborough, for example, all owe their existence and continuation as fairs to the original hiring fairs of many years ago.

By the fourteenth century a network of chartered and prescriptive fairs had been established throughout England. During the eighteenth century these great fairs prospered with Bartholomew Fair, Stourbridge, St Ives, Weyhill and many others renowned throughout the country as centres of trade, commerce and entertainment.

Currently, over two hundred fairs take place every weekend in the United Kingdom, with the Goose Fair at Nottingham and Hull Fair growing in size and popularity every year.

Many of the technological advancements of the past 150 years were first exploited by travelling showmen for commercial gain. Showmen were responsible for innovations in popular entertainment such as the cinema, and the widespread use of electricity. Visitors to a fairground in Yorkshire in the 1900s would have had their first sight of a motorcar when they took a ride on Mrs Hannah Waddington's Motorcar Switchback. The wonders of electricity were exhibited to great effect in Scotland in the 1890s by the magician Dr. Walford Bodie, the self-styled British Edison with his act featuring Madame Electra.

The Victorian fair was one of fluctuating fortunes and the golden age of travelling entertainment did not occur until the latter half of the century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century attractions such as theatrical booths, waxworks, and freak shows began to dominate the fairground landscape. The middle of the century saw the emergence of the wild beast shows known as menageries, which began to assume a primacy over their rival shows on the fair.

The shows of the early to mid-nineteenth century are perhaps the best documented of all the amusements that appeared on the fairground until the introduction of steam powered roundabouts. Their heyday was in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century with the menageries, circuses, exhibitions and waxworks all dominating the showground landscape. The people who exhibited such shows became well known personalities and adopted extravagant titles, for example, George Sanger adopting the title "Lord". Some of the showmen who exhibited in this period became rich and left the fairground altogether. Among those who stayed in the fairground were the families who laid the foundations of the great showland successes of the late nineteenth century.

By the 1850s the trading element in fairs throughout the country seemed to have been replaced by entertainment and the shows appeared to be in decline. The notorious Bartholomew Fair had its charter proclaimed for the last time in 1855, and this was quickly followed by the demise of the events in Camberwell in 1855, Greenwich by 1857, and Stepney in 1860. Even the array of shows found at the remaining festivities seemed no longer to attract the attention of an ever more sophisticated audience. During that period many of the famous names of the first part of the nineteenth century also seemed to desert the travelling fairs. Lord George Sanger bought the permanent site of Astley’s in 1871 as a circus exhibition and stopped travelling. Although Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie would continue to be connected with the fairground industry for another fifty years, the death of the founder in 1850 and the disposal of his show in 1872 would seem to indicate that the nation had outgrown its need for such entertainment.

Fairs throughout the country seemed in danger in the 1860s and 1870s, not only as a result of The Fairs Acts of 1868, 1871, and 1873, but also because of the loss of traditional sites in town centres. The Fairs Act of 1871, had allowed local authorities or ‘owners’ of fairs the right to petition for their abolition, and the further amendments introduced in The Fairs Act of 1873, created the possibility of changing the days when the event could be held. Historians of the time warned against the loss of such events.

However, fairs could only face abolition if no public pressure was applied to prevent such an order being carried out. If the notice of abolition was greeted with public outrage and pressure, the Secretary of State had the power to rescind the request from the local authorities. In order to prevent such notices taking effect, travelling fairs had to prove their necessity to the recreational needs of the populace. The changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had not yet made an impact on the types of entertainment offered on the fairground, which faced competition from music halls, theatres and travelling exhibitions such as panoramas and lantern shows that presented their attractions in venues in the town centres. Thomas Frost writing in 1874 believed that fairs had become unnecessary and stated:

What need then, of fairs, and shows? The nation has outgrown them, and fairs are as dead as the generations which they have delighted, and the last showman will soon be as great a curiosity as the dodo.

Despite this prophecy fairs continued to survive and flourish. The Wakes fairs associated with workers’ holidays became affirmations of community identity in which people expressed themselves through uninhibited pleasure seeking. The fairs themselves began to adapt to new conditions and embrace the new and the different. Although audience had changed and events had become increasingly unpopular with the urban bourgeoisie, the appeal of such fairs was on the increase among the working class.

In the 1860s an event occurred that revolutionised the Victorian fair and laid the foundations for the modern travelling amusement business: the introduction of steam-powered roundabouts at both Bolton New Year Fair and Midsummer Fair at Halifax. This was soon followed by Frederick Savage, founding the firm of Savage's based in King's Lynn in Norfolk for the construction of mechanised roundabouts. A range of rides and designs emerged culminating in 1891 when Savage’s produced the classic style for the English "Gallopers" or as it became known in Europe and America, the Carousel. Mechanisation shifted the emphasis from the shows, which were rooted in the past, to the rides which gave the showmen complete freedom to keep in step with the technological advancements of an ever revolutionary age. The golden age of the fairground roundabouts was yet to come, but the seeds planted had grown strongly.

By the end of the Victorian era the landscape of the fairground was populated by rides of all kinds: steam yachts, switchbacks and of course the galloping horses. Mechanisation made the fairground appear modern and futuristic, the latest attractions of the age such as ghost shows, cinematograph and x-ray photography were fully exploited by fairground showmen who advertised their attractions as being patronised by all classes of people. The showmen achieved prestige and prosperity through investing in the rides when they were displayed at King's Lynn Valentine's Day Fair. The golden age of the fairground had arrived and by the end of the nineteenth century fairs were no longer in decline and 200 events were taking place in the United Kingdom every weekend, from Easter through to November.

Mechanisation on the fairground came at a most opportune time in its history it revitalised the once glorious fairs and created a hierarchy of businessmen on the fairgrounds. Fairs became a feature of the holiday calendar in both town and country. This increase in prosperity and respectability resulted in the Government becoming increasingly tolerant towards the holding of fairs, showing little interest in enforcing the legislation introduced in the previous decade.

The modern travelling fairground owes its existence to both the network of chartered and prescriptive fairs and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the landscape to one of modernity and motion. In the twentieth century the clamour for new and modern sensations saw the advent of exciting rides and many of the old attractions were superseded by the Whip, the Caterpillar and those modern classics the Waltzer and the dodgems all of which transformed the scenery of the fairground.

Today’s showmen use both history and modernity to market the fair. As well as reflecting youth culture, fairs have also become part of larger events reflecting the multi-cultural nature of society. The showmen have learned to adapt and to provide a fair for different and varied audiences and if necessary to take the rides to the people as opposed to expect the people to come to the once traditional yearly fair held in their town or locality.

The fair was and continues to be a venue in which all forms of live and mechanical entertainments are patronized by all classes of people. The ingredients of spectacle, experience, illusion and reality are part of a great melting pot.

Watch the video: What Is Contemporary Circus? Shana Kennedy. TEDxRoseTree (June 2022).


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