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Under the Big Top: History of circus is a mirror of American society

In 1841, entrepreneur extraordinaire P.T. Barnum opened a museum of oddities and immediately ran into a logistical problem. Customers came in and liked what they saw so much that they didn’t want to leave. Barnum couldn’t fit new customers into the museum.

Professor Janet Davis
Dr. Janet Davis

To solve the problem, Barnum posted a sign that read “This Way to the Egress.” Most visitors, unaware that egress meant exit, eagerly walked through a door, expecting to see an animal straight out of their nightmares, and found themselves outside. To re-enter the museum, they had to relinquish another quarter.

In that little anecdote lies a lot of Americana and a nugget of what the circus means to some—ballyhoo, deception, sleight of hand, exotica, spectacle, illusion and good old American salesmanship.

Janet Davis, a professor of American studies at The University of Texas at Austin, has spent the larger portion of her academic career studying the role of the circus in American culture. She concludes that the circus often has served as a big funhouse mirror, reflecting the values, fears and issues of society at large.

“At so many points the circus has been an excellent symbol for the nation’s development,” says Davis. “Whether you’re looking at the circus’s business operations and the way they used transportation developments like the railroad to superb advantage, or at gender and race issues, the circus was a real cultural barometer.”

In her book “The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top,” Davis offers a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most popular forms of American entertainment, a spectacle that, at the turn of the century, was more eagerly awaited than Christmas. When Circus Day came and the train rolled into town carrying car after car of exotic animals and tents that were taller and bigger than some buildings in the small communities, the sheer enormity and magical allure of the enterprise often shut down schools and closed a few businesses. People traveled by wagon or train from cities 50 miles away to get a glimpse of the trapeze artists, laugh at the clowns and marvel at the ferocious animals that yielded to a daring trainer’s will.

Snake charmer holding a snake
At the turn of the century almost all snake charmers were women.

“When P.T. Barnum decided to use three rings for his circus instead of one, there was this notion that there was so much to look at that the eyes could not possibly take it all in at one visit,” says Davis. “So people came back and paid again to see the next show. It was an excellent marketing ploy—people traveled from far and wide to see the unmediated thrills, the glamour and the live entertainment. The circus was the reality TV of its day.”

And like reality TV, some of its features could be unsavory, pandering to base urges and ignoble impulses. Along with being the most-anticipated form of entertainment, the circus also was viewed with some trepidation—Circus Day often brought brawls and drunkenness in citizens who saw a golden opportunity to drop the veil of everyday respectability. Fires broke out in circus tents and animals escaped and wreaked havoc. Pickpockets abounded, circus workers sometimes lost their lives while putting on a show and it was not unusual for a small community to lose at least a couple of its youth to the traveling extravaganza as it pulled out of town.

Peering back at the history of the circus through the lens of 21st century political correctness, the popularity of attractions such as freakshows, which paraded human physical aberrations as divinely inspired creatures or monsters, may seem incomprehensible. The performances of circus animals, the displays of seminude women and the racist representations of people of color also can elicit the same feelings of distaste, indignation or disbelief. Davis stresses that like all social institutions or pop culture icons, the subculture of the circus must be understood in a larger context, as a product of the mores and knowledge base of its time.

“Regarding the circus ‘freaks,’ showmen would describe in lavish detail the very exciting origins of these oddities and people didn’t know any better so they believed that a Sumatran girl covered in hair, for example, was part gorilla and a ‘missing link,’” says Davis. “Science had not explained many of these physical aberrations. When science and medicine do catch up, however, it becomes more apparent that there are physiological abnormalities with the sideshow ‘giant,’ for example, and then there’s not anything mystical or fantastical. It’s exploitation on stage, but also paid employment for someone who might otherwise be out of work.”

Group of circus clowns
This photo of circus clowns taken in 1905 includes several stock characters: a pot-bellied policeman, a man dressed as a woman and a tramp.

More fascinating even than the treatment of the sideshow freaks, however, was the schizophrenic behavior toward women in the circus. Revealing of societal norms a century ago, circus women were displayed in a sexually titillating fashion and in erotically charged scenarios, while at the same time being billed (with a big wink) as examples of unblemished purity and domesticity.

“The way the circus visually presented women did solidify the sense that the scantily clad female body was a sex object,” says Davis. “But because of Victorian morals and propriety, the showmen would market them as these images of demure womanhood. Here were almost naked, unmarried young women swinging through the air and twirling and standing on horse’s backs as they raced at top speed around the arena. They were showing such incredible strength and agility and independence, and the advertising literature would stress that a young lady was traveling under the watchful eye of her father and liked nothing better than to stay home and bake cakes and knit in the evenings.”

Although the women who performed in the ring were well-muscled and wore leotards, short skirts and tights which showed the development of their arms and legs, posters that advertised the female circus stars would often undergo the early 20th century equivalent of airbrushing. A well-known female acrobat’s head might be attached to a more acceptably soft and curvaceous Ziegfeld Follies dancer’s body. In an era when long skirts and long sleeves were the fashion a female performer in tights and a form-fitting sleeveless top was considered seminude.

Female sexuality also proved to be a lucrative hook when a circus had a female animal trainer.

“One very famous female animal trainer in the first third of the 20th century, Mabel Stark, had actually been a trained nurse who grew tired of ordinary life and decided to join the circus,” says Davis. “A show manager saw her and said, hey, she’d look good with a tiger, so soon she was wearing these elaborate, feathery headdresses and letting the tigers clamp their jaws over her. In circus posters and advertisements this sort of thing was all very sexual—women lying down with large cats that were made to look almost virile and masculine. It was about the endless appeal of sex content.”

May Wirth (left), a bareback rider, and Lillian Leitzel, an aerialist
May Wirth (left) was a bareback rider and Lillian Leitzel was an aerialist.

In her studies of gender, society and the circus, Davis came upon a rare treasure that offers a candid, firsthand description of life in the circus’s underbelly at the turn of the century. One female circus performer, a diminutive Hungarian immigrant later named Tiny Kline who came to America at 14 as part of a dance troupe, left a diary of her rise to circus fame, and Davis is annotating and editing the memoir for publication.

Kline’s story is both strange and inspirational, emphasizing the paradoxical treatment of independent, career-minded women in the early 20th century and at the same time delivering the sort of very American rags-to-riches tale that was so popular during her time.

Kline, upon arriving in America, lived in the Clara de Hirsch Home, a boarding house and industrial school in New York City for Jewish immigrant working girls. It was a place where young women could learn respectability and proper conduct in preparation for becoming productive American citizens as domestic servants or needle workers.

Eventually, she rejected that life to become a burlesque dancer. Work off-Broadway in cheap productions followed and soon she was married to a well-known Wild West trick rider. Five weeks after the nuptials he fell off of his horse and died, leaving Kline to begin her own career in the circus. Starting at the bottom of the labor hierarchy as a virtually nude, painted “statue girl,” she worked her way up to Roman rider (standing atop a charging steed in the chariot races at the end of the show) and eventually became the queen of the aerial iron jaw act, her trademark.

As an oddball footnote to her illustrious career, Kline, at age 70, became the very first Tinkerbell at Disneyland. Suspended 146 feet up in the air, she glided down a long wire from the Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty’s castle at dusk to tap her wand and signal the explosion of fireworks.

Like P. T. Barnum’s clever solution for his overcrowded museum, Kline’s colorful life story seems perfectly to reflect the quirkiness, hypnotic charm, risqué appeal and dazzling allure that have sustained the circus over two centuries in America.

“It’s just hard to compare the circus to anything else,” says Davis. “Back in its heyday, when the circus came to town it was everything from cotton candy, pink lemonade and peanuts to skimpy costumes, fights, dancing elephants and breakneck crazy stunts on tightropes.”

Kay Randall

Photo of Janet Davis: Marsha Miller

Circus photos courtesy
Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wis.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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