Let's Go to the Circus! | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Let's Go to the Circus! - Image Gallery Essay

Let's Go to the Circus! | Wisconsin Historical Society


A group of over twenty-six Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants, standing on their rear legs with front legs resting on the elephant ahead.

Performing Circus Elephants, 1943

New York, New York. A group of over 26 Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants, perform in a circus ring inside New York City's Madison Square Garden while watched by a large audience. View the original source document: WHI 22743

Take a visual trip back in time to see what the circus was like from the 1860s to the 1960s. A wide range of circus activities are depicted in this selection of over 100 photographs. These images illustrate the excitement as well as the hard work that went into putting on the show. Included are performers, clowns, animals, wagons, several posters and many behind-the-scenes shots.

The Development of the Circus

In the United States, the circus as we know it began in 1793 with a performance in Philadelphia by John Bill Ricketts. By the 1830s, the traveling circus was developing into a major source of entertainment. The evolution of transportation technology, including the expansion of railroads across the country, led to a golden age of the circus by the 1870s.

Wisconsin’s circus heritage started 1847 when Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie set up the winter quarters for their Grand Olympic Arena and United States Circus in Delavan, one year before statehood. In the coming decades communities from Antigo to Evansville, from Milwaukee to Chippewa Falls could boast being the home of a circus. The world-famous Ringling Bros. formed their circus in Baraboo in 1884. Between 1847 and 1998 over 100 circuses would call Wisconsin home, a heritage celebrated today at Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

The Evolution of the Circus

By 1900, there were hundreds of circuses in the U.S. However, throughout the mid to late 20th century the circus steadily declined from its once preeminent stature. The onset of the Great Depression pulled many shows off the road. The emergence of new entertainment media including radio, motion pictures, and television drastically cut into the audience base. Today there are fewer than 40 circuses operating in the U.S., but those that remain stand as a testament to the endurance of this unique cultural and entertainment art form.

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