Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Mark Twain spent a whole chapter of Huckleberry Finn describing an evening there. In Tom Sawyer, the children spoke of it as the pinnacle of happiness and beauty. It was The Circus. Even small towns could see the glamour of spangled costumes and exotic animals, listen to brass bands and pipe organs, and watch tightropes, trick riders and painted clowns.

George Washington attended the first circus in Philadelphia in 1793. It was a permanent show in its own building, but in the next decade circuses started traveling across the country. On arriving by horse, and later by train, the circus performers would arrange itself into a line, with animals in fancy trappings or in carved and painted special wagons, brass bands ready, and performers in costume, and parade down main street. This was a wonderful advertisement, and a great show in its own right. Business stopped completely, even schools letting out, so that residents could see "the greatest show on earth."

Circus wagons lining up...note the camel in photo forefront. Circus tents were pitched at the outskirts of town, near pasture and large water supply. Horses, camels and elephants were work animals as well as performers, and were the stars of any parade.

Here is an example of the specially designed cage wagons to show off the wilder animals -- lions, tigers, and pumas.

The famous Nabisco animal cracker box: fashioned after the Victorian circus wagon in 1902, it had a string handle was so the box could be hung on a Christmas tree as a treat from Santa Claus.

Notice the fancy howdahs for the elephant riders and the people leaning out of windows to watch the parade.

More elephants, dressed in advertising banners. The watching crowd seems to be marching parallel with the animals towards the circus grounds.

A lithograph of a fancier parade leaving for town.

Another lithograph: this the cover of a children's book, which used the popular event for story material.

The circus parade is one of the few Victorian entertainments which has continued almost unchanged into our own time.