Historical Sidenote

So, this week’s blog post doesn’t really deal with anything that’s going on at the Whaley House right now. It’s sort of a random history idea/thought that I had. Being an historian, I often take random things that I’ve seen or overheard in conversation and think about them historically. There’s not a day that goes by without me wondering “Where did that come from?” or “How did that come about?” This week, it’s the circus.

The circus was in town (Saginaw) this past weekend. Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s still there or when exactly the shows were, but I’ve heard about it on the radio during my commute and have seen commercials for it on television. This weekend while at church I even had a small child tell me that the church smelled like the circus, and he didn’t mean that as a compliment referring to the sugary cotton candy and caramel corn available under the Big Top. Kids can be so brutally honest sometimes. Well all of this circus talk got me wondering about the history of the circusy.
Here’s what I’ve found out.

Circus was a term originally referring to the round space where Ancient Romans viewed chariot races, gladiatorial games, staged battle reenactments, and wild animal fights. “Bread and circuses” was a common phrase used to talk about the easy way to please citizens during the time of the Roman Empire.

The site of the former Circus Maximus in Rome. By the way, I’ve totally been there!

The idea of the modern circus comes to us via England, however. In 1768, Philip Astley set up an amphitheater for viewers to witness a wide array of horse-riding tricks.

A sketch of Philip Astley’s amphitheater in London

A few decades later, in 1792, John Bill Ricketts came to the United State from England, where he worked for Hughes Royal Circus. He set up a circus in Philadelphia, where George Washington even came to witness a show. The circus gained popularity in the United States during the first decades of the nineteenth century as more entertainers began their own circuses, some even traveling and using large tents for their shows, instead of permanent structures. P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) revolutionized the American circus, however, when he combined human feats of skill and daring with wild animal shows and sideshow entertainment. Barnum’s partner, William Coup, was the firs person to use a train to bring a circus to town.

Circuses continued to grow and become even more popular. Spin-offs of the traditional circus (such as Cirque du Soleil) have been entrancing audiences since the 1980s, as they cater to an older audience and pack tourist venues at Disney World, Las Vegas, and around the globe. The traditional circuses continue to plug along as well and children throw their hands up in excitement when they hear that the circus is coming to town.

Downtown Disney’s Cirque du Soleil, La Nouba is housed permanent theater made to look like an extravagant circus tent.


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