From Barnum & Bailey to Annie Oakley: History of traveling entertainment in America

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September 13, 2020
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From Barnum & Bailey to Annie Oakley: History of traveling entertainment in America

Hemingway once wrote: “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.” Indeed, traveling entertainment in all of its forms—circuses as well as carnivals, musical performances, etc.—has always been, as Hemingway notes, delightful in some regard.

Where Hemingway is wrong, though, is that the delight of the circus—and all forms of traveling entertainment that have evolved alongside it—is hardly ageless. A close examination of entertainment throughout history will quickly highlight just how much particular forms of entertainment were products of their times, such that they could never be considered enjoyable in the same way today.

Take, for example, the tradition of the medicine show. This was a spectacle in which a troupe of performers puts on an entertaining show only to draw in onlookers and serve them with a sales pitch for “miracle cures” and “cure-all elixirs.” While these shows may have been considered enjoyable—and for some, a source of hope—in the 1800s, the passing of legislation starting with the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 ultimately made the sale and peddling of misbranded drugs prohibited, so these performances could no longer exist in the same way.

Another example could be the popular minstrel shows that swept the nation throughout the 1800s and earlier part of the 1900s. These shows, many of which were performed in blackface makeup, depicted "comical" portrayals of racial stereotypes of African Americans. At the time, this was not only considered appropriate, but enjoyable and delightful. Today, any allusion to blackface is enough to destroy a brand’s reputation. Even Hemingway’s beloved circus has seen shifts in its “delightfulness” as questions around animal rights have challenged its practices in recent years.

Times change, and with them, so do our opinions of what might be considered entertaining—and the expense at which we’re willing to be entertained. Delight becomes nothing if not a product of day and age. Over the years, the changing aspects of traveling entertainment in America—the good, the bad, and the quirky—have reflected shifts in American values as much as they have reflected changes in technology, politics, and cultural norms.

To better paint the landscape of traveling entertainment throughout American history, Stacker compiled a list of 25 key moments using industry archives, historical accounts, and academic journals. From Barnum & Bailey to Annie Oakley, here’s a look at how traveling entertainment has evolved over the years.

1793: First circus in America

While traveling performers were hardly unheard of at this point, this was the first time that such entertainers were introduced to the country in the form of a circus as we know it today. The first circus came to be when an equestrian performer from England, John Bill Ricketts, created a Philadelphia-based spectacle that showcased riding acts, in addition to clown performances and tightrope walking.

The first performance, held on April 3, 1793, took place in a roofless arena that could hold 800 viewers. Ricketts later began touring with his circus company across the eastern U.S. and Canada, continuing until 1799, when a fire destroyed the pantheon and amphitheater he had built in Philadelphia to house his circus.

1820s: Traveling menageries move across the country

Though animal shows and exhibitions didn’t fully merge with the circus until the 1830s, this was a period when animals were considered an attraction in their own right. It mostly started when a New York farmer, Hachaliah Bailey, bought an African elephant from his brother, a sea captain who had purchased the animal at auction while abroad. Bailey began showing off his elephant to spectators for a small fee, which later inspired budding entrepreneurs to follow suit and acquire animals of their own to put on display and charge others to see. This rising trend gave way to a period of traveling menageries in the country.

1825: First tent circus in America

As the popularity of circuses began growing across the country, so did the reimagination of certain components of the show. In 1825, Joshua Purdy Brown became the first circus owner to move away from the wooden structure that housed most circuses. Instead, he replaced it with a large canvas tent, which was the first version of the traditional circus “big top.”

In 1832, Brown also became the first circus proprietor to officially roll a menagerie into his circus along with the more traditional acts and performances. Interestingly, the combination of the two—the circus and the menagerie—helped expand the audience of the former, which was often considered crude and frivolous and the time, by playing on the more widely accepted education value of the latter.

1833: The first wild animal training in an American circus

Just one year after Joshua Purdy Brown first combined his traveling circus with a traveling menagerie, there was another major leap in regards to animal exhibition. In 1833, animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh became one of the country’s first famous lion tamers when he got into a cage with a lion, a tiger, and a leopard during a showcase in New York. Though animal training—and the taming of wild animals and large cats, in particular—became a critical part of the circus, Amburgh remains one of the earliest stars in the space and is even credited with being the first to perform the popular trick of sticking his head into a lion’s mouth.

1840s: The rise of the American freak show

In the mid-19th century, freak shows—exhibitions of oddities, absurdities, and “freaks” of all kinds—began gaining popularity in America. There had been smaller examples of these freak shows prior to this point, largely thanks to Chang and Eng, the original conjoined twins who came to America from Siam in 1829 and gave rise to the term “Siamese twins.” It was in the 1840s, though, that a rise in scientific and medical advancements made Americans particularly curious about the anomalies that seemed to be unexplainable. Thus, the freak shows took on a concurrently entertaining and scientific allure.

1842: P.T. Barnum opens Barnum’s American Museum

Another of the biggest reasons that freak shows gained popularity in the 1840s was P.T. Barnum. The American showman—who would found one of America’s most famous circuses, and was the inspiration behind the film “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman—saw an opportunity to double down on the popularity of spectating at oddities, absurdities, and scientifically unexplained deformities.

In 1842, he opened Barnum’s American Museum, which featured live animals—including the country’s first aquarium—alongside odd human spectacles, like a bearded lady and a 5-year-old dwarf named Tom Thumb who stood at 25 inches tall. In order to create a more sensational experience for museum visitors, Barnum often stretched the truth around the oddities in his museum to make them appear more mind-boggling. For example, Barnum told onlookers that Tom Thumb—whose name was actually Charles Stratton—was 11 years old rather than 5, to make his size seem even more dramatic for his age.

1844: Dan Rice is the king of clowns

A circus would be incomplete without its clowns, and the history of clowns would be incomplete without Dan Rice. The clown is remembered as one of the most notable in the history of circus performing—so much so, in fact, that his act including slapstick comedy and equestrian jesting had him at one point earning an outrageous-for-the-time $1000 per week. One of the signature characteristics of Rice’s act was his blending of silly humor with witty political satire.

1843: The Virginia Minstrels introduce the minstrel show

In the early 19th century, minstrel shows—humorous theatrical and musical performances that perpetuated problematic racial stereotypes—were gaining popularity. Shows would typically consist of white actors playing on stereotypes of African Americans, including impersonations of their singing and their dancing. In most cases, actors would don blackface makeup during their performances.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice—also known as Daddy Rice—is considered the father of blackface minstrelsy, as the actor mostly rose to fame following his 1928 performance of “Jump Jim Crow.” However, the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, which unfortunately carried well into the 20th century, gained most of its traction in 1843, when a quartet called the Virginia Minstrels had their first performance in New York.

1868: The British Blondes take America

Lydia Thompson was an English actress and singer who, in 1868, sailed to America with her troupe of performers, the British Blondes. The women began performing their famed burlesque shows in New York, combining musical performances and suggestive dancing with comedy. Though she didn’t invent burlesque—Americans had been familiar with the art form since around the 1840s—Thompson and her troupe are credited with spurring the rise in burlesque as a popular form of entertainment for audiences across the country.

1869: Completion of the transcontinental railroad

As traveling entertainment became an increasingly prominent fixture in America, it followed that advancements in transportation were critical to continued expansion, particularly for large operations like circuses. In 1869, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad marked such a point. Suddenly, entertainers had an efficient, expansive mode of transportation that could transform how they traveled across the country. One of the first showmen to take advantage of the new railroad was Dan Castello, founder of Dan Castello’s Great Circus & Egyptian Caravan, who hopped aboard and traveled from Nebraska to California with two elephants and two camels in tow.

1871: The Greatest Show on Earth

While P.T. Barnum was seeing plenty of success with his museum of oddities, it wasn’t long before he was ready to take his show on the road. At first, that just consisted of Barnum bringing his oddities to others with “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling American Museum.” In 1870, however, the showman was presented with an opportunity by two circus managers—W.C. Coup and his partner Dan Castello—to join forces and create a larger-than-life show. Barnum was excited about the prospect of combining his love for oddities with his interest in the traveling menageries and circus shows of the time. He accepted the offer and, together with Coup and Castello, the trio created "P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome,” later dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth” because of its grandeur.

1877: “The Human Projectile”

Plenty of youngsters have attempted to recreate their own versions of a human cannonball while at the pool in the summer, but English aerialist Rossa Richter—better known by her stage name, “Zazel”—was the first true human cannonball to make her mark on the entertainment scene.

As a teenager, Zazel performed the first-ever cannonball stunt when she was catapulted out of a cannon-like contraption (created by William Leonard Hunt, a tightrope walker) towards a safety net. The spectacle gained thousands of fascinated onlookers as word spread about the performance, and Zazel ultimately made her way stateside from London to tour with P.T. Barnum’s circus, until an accident in 1891 put her out of commission.

1880: Barnum and Bailey’s Circus is born

By the 1880s, P.T. Barnum is doing pretty well for himself — but so was his primary competitor, James A. Bailey. While Bailey and his partner, James E. Cooper, spent the latter part of the 1870s traveling abroad with their circus, their eventual return to the U.S. posed a threat to Barnum, who ultimately joined forces with Bailey and Cooper to create the “Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.” This was the first major example of how the changing circus industry and the rise of heavy hitters in the space was giving rise to a monopolistic culture, whereby large railroad circuses were looking for ways to wipe out the competition, either through acquisition or mutually beneficial mergers.

1880s: Medicine shows begin mushrooming

While circuses and freak shows made their way around the country, they were joined by medicine shows in the 1880s. These shows consisted of performances that were typical of traveling musicians or circuses—e.g., vaudeville-style shows and magic tricks. The catch was that the performances were truly bait to pull audiences in and then eventually try to sell them “miracle cures” and “healing elixirs.” Often times, the performance put on by the troupe of performers would include something that could be used as a selling point for the products. For example, a “muscle man” routine might be used as a tool, by showcasing someone’s strength and then citing a particular elixir as the source of that strength.

1881: Magic lantern shows

Before motion pictures, there was the art of magic lantern shows. In these shows, traveling showmen would create visual experiences for onlookers by combining music and storytelling with hand-drawn illustrations that they’ve converted into slides. Joseph Boggs Beale—who worked as a traveling magic lantern showman for 39 years and is considered the country’s earliest screen artist—was known for bringing such stories and poems like “The Raven” to life on the screen.

1882: Ringling brothers perform vaudeville-style show

Before the five Ringling brothers started traveling together as a circus troupe in 1884, they spent a few years performing a vaudeville-style show, in which a couple of brothers would dance, two more would play their instruments, and the final brother would sing. In the two years between the start of their vaudeville performances and the launch of their circus, the Ringling brothers acquired a donkey and a Shetland pony, both of which were important to their first trick acts. These two years also saw the sixth and seventh Ringling brothers join the blossoming circus operation that eventually took off.

1883: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show begins

While some forms of traveling entertainment were just that—purely there for entertainment’s sake—other forms managed to entertain while offering a little bit of insight, even if dramatized, into a particular corner of American culture. That was the primary allure of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—the audience could watch and get a glimpse into the world of the Wild West. The show, which was started in Nebraska by William F. Cody, debuted in 1883 and consisted of a wide array of performances, including sharpshooting demonstrations, rodeo events, races, and reenactments of key traditions or moments in the history of the Wild West (e.g., stagecoach robberies and buffalo hunting). Four years after starting his show, Cody took this taste of the Wild West to the east and performed for the first time in London in 1887.

1885: Annie Oakley joins Buffalo Bill

One of the major selling points of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was the entirely unique set of characters and personalities in founder William F. Cody’s troupe, including cowboys and Native Americans, as well as animals like elk and bison. Amongst the characters in Cody’s troupe was Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter and entertainer. Oakley was a part of Buffalo Bill’s troupe for 17 years, during which time she wowed crowds with her precision—she could shoot a flame off a candle while it spun on a wheel.

1893: Chicago World Fair

Circuses and various forms of traveling entertainment had been present in America for a century at this point, but this was the time when carnivals, with their rides, games, and unique foodstuffs, came into play. While the primary purpose of the Chicago World Fair was to put some of the latest technological advancements on display, there was a small area of the event, called the Midway Plaisance, where free entertainment was offered. This included sideshows like a fortune teller and a fat lady, as well as try-your-luck games and a merry-go-round. The fair also featured the first Ferris wheel—built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.—which was intended to be a one-up on Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

[Pictured: View of the Midway Plaisance at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 including Ferris Wheel and captive balloon.]

1919: Barnum & Bailey join forces with Ringling Bros.

After achieving massive success stateside—the circus became a three-ring operation that was drawing in crowds of 10,000 and tackling a European tour—Barnum and Bailey’s Circus took a hit in 1906 when Bailey died. As the new behemoths on the block, the Ringling brothers decided to purchase Barnum and Bailey’s, with the plan to operate it separately from their original circus. That changed in 1919, when a temporary wartime consolidation of the two circuses proved incredibly profitable. Thus, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus was born, and became the new Greatest Show on Earth.

1923: The birth of the auto thrill show

By the 1920s, Americans had become familiar with the wild stunts of the circus, and had gotten some tastes of thrill thanks to traveling carnivals. Recognizing the allure of that thrill —which he also knew well thanks to his family’s flight school—Ohio event promoter Ward Beam decided to create a new venture around this perceived trend. He went ahead and created what he called Ward Beam’s International Congress of Daredevils, which was a traveling troupe of daredevil automobilists who would take on challenges like nailing precision moves with their vehicles and racing or showing off a little speed. A big part of the shows was also the element of destruction. This first-of-its-kind auto thrill show set the stage for contemporary iterations, such as Monster Jam.

[Pictured: Auto racing legend Joie Chitwood Sr. developed a popular automotive thrill show that bore his name.]

1936: “The World’s Strangest Married Couple”

Another example of the kinds of “freaks” that might appear in a traditional American sideshow was “the world’s strangest married couple.” Married in 1936, Al Tomaini and Bernice “Jeanie” Smith earned their moniker thanks to Tomaini’s sheer size—he was a “giant” who stood over 8 feet tall—and Jeanie’s half-sized (she was born with a birth defect that left her with only a torso and no legs). The couple spent several years touring the country with different circuses and carnivals, before actually running a few of their own.

1939: Founding of Amusements of America

The popularity of traveling carnivals following the Chicago World Fair in 1893 began to rise slowly in subsequent years, before a dramatic spike in the early 20th century. By 1905, about 22 years after the World Fair, there were 46 traveling carnivals in the country. By 1937, that number rose to approximately 300. Just a couple years after that estimate was reported, one of the most significant carnival companies in America’s history was created. In 1939, a man named Morris Vivona decided to buy the Ferris wheel from the New York World Fair, and, with that purchase, Amusements of America was born. The carnival operator set up temporary carnivals—complete with rides like the “giant wheel” and the “wave swinger”—that stretched across the eastern seaboard, as well as the Midwest. In 1995, Amusements of America was named the world’s largest traveling amusement park by “Guinness Book of World Records.”

[Pictured: An aerial view of the midway at a fair in Puyallup, Washington, in the 1930s.]

1948: The Viking Giant

Another example of a famous sideshow attraction, Jóhann Pétursson was a Goliath of a man who earned himself the nicknames “The Viking Giant” and “The Icelandic Giant” thanks to his height of 8 feet 8 inches. Pétursson originally participated in exhibitions around Europe before being invited to America by Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus to join their show. Upon joining this circus, the Ringling brothers changed up Pétursson’s performance wear of choice—a top hat and a waistcoat—and instead had him dress in a traditional Viking costume, complete with the horned helmet.

2017: Ringling Bros. calls its final curtain

After a 146-year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus officially shut down in May of 2017. “The Greatest Show on Earth” had to call it quits after a combination of high operating costs and expensive legal battles made it difficult for the circus to stay afloat, let alone turn a profit. One of the biggest nails in the circus’ coffin was the pressure and legal action from animal rights groups, who opposed the use of animals in the show. Despite conceding to these pressures—Ringling Bros. officially stopped using elephants in their shows after May 2016—the iconic circus wasn’t able to revitalize ticket sales and revive itself after a few too many blows.

[Pictured: A group of Ringling Bros. performers waves goodbye to the elephants after their final performance in May 2016.]

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