Until movies and television, nothing kept Americans more rapt than when the circus came to town. “For over a century, mass popular entertainment in the United States was the circus,” says historian Les Standiford, “and it became a reflection of the American experience itself.” He spoke to Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga about his book “Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus.”
What did the circus mean to Americans?
As westward expansion began, the circus followed after the pioneers who were opening up the frontier. When people stopped struggling, clearing brush, and trying to get the homestead built, they went to the circus that popped up every summer. The circus was a reminder to people ... that they could transcend their limitations. You’d turn to your neighbor after watching acrobatics or a guy stick his head in a lion’s mouth, and say, “Did that just happen?”
On the simplest level, it was this amazing diversion, the likes of which we don’t have anymore. But in a deeper sense, it was an exercise in possibility.
Did people really run away and join the circus?
Of course, most people didn’t. But this was very much a part of the popular mythology, even when I was a kid growing up in the small town of Cambridge, Ohio, as it was just pulling itself out of the Depression. The idea was that if you get too beat up and depressed, and you don’t like your life, you can always run away and join the circus. It stood for possibility, glamour, accomplishment, and exoticism.
Who were the big players?
The growth of the rail system in America allowed for circuses to get really big. It got to the point where there were six or seven circuses that really dominated. Then P.T. Barnum and James Bailey joined up [in 1881] to create “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which required 1,000 people to move from place to place. They ruled until the Ringling Bros., seven upstarts from Baraboo, Wisconsin, fell in love with the circus business and got ... better at it. They were on the cusp of putting Barnum and Bailey out of business by the early 1890s.
What do you think of Barnum, who hoodwinked people with fake exhibits?
His notion was, “If I give you good value for your money, then how is that flimflammery?” The question of whether something is real or not was secondary. To him, “Is it entertaining?” was the principal question.
Can you put the dark sides of the circus, such as animal abuse, into perspective?
We understand now what we should have done differently. Certainly, nobody is campaigning for elephants to go back to work in the circus. However, there is little evidence of serious maltreatment of animals. Of course, you can argue that animals were never meant to be in the circus, or in zoos for that matter.
What about “freak shows”?
Someone asked Tom Thumb [a famous 19th-century dwarf performer] if he felt P.T. Barnum exploited him. He laughed and said his parents used to shut him in a back bedroom out of shame. As a performer, he got to meet the crowned heads of state of Europe and build a mansion not only for himself but for his family, too. He had a life that he could never have had otherwise. [In some cases] to be out in the world as a performer was far preferable to being closed off and kept out of society altogether.
What legacy has the circus left us?
I think about the Ringling Bros. They were just regular kids, poor as church mice, and what they saw at the circus inspired them to do this impossible thing: Not only did they build a circus, but they became the face of the circus in the United States. That’s what needs to be remembered. The circus grew up as a reflection of the American dream that anything is possible if you work hard enough.