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.
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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.
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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.
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