The Circus When America Was Young

The first elephant in America was advertised simply as “The Elephant.” The front page advertisement in the Aurora, N.Y., newspaper says “Lately arrived from INDIA, and the first that was ever upon this continent.” Admission to see “The Elephant” was half-a-dollar for grown persons and a quarter of a dollar for children. The value of this newspaper is $40 to $50.

The “Golden Age of the Circus” is a perplexing period of time that historians have difficulty pinpointing. One historian identified 1880 to 1918 as the Golden Age and linked the decline of the railroad circus with its end.1 But other historians have a range of opinions: 1880-1900,2 1860-1930,3 1840-1940,4 beginning in the 1850s,5 or ending between 1900 and 1910.6

Regardless of what dates you specify, there was, without doubt, a “Golden Age”—a time when circus was king. However, that wasn’t the beginning of the circus in America.

John Bill Ricketts is credited with presenting the first complete circus performance on American soil on April 3, 1793. This performance debuted in an amphitheatre he erected in Philadelphia. President George Washington and First Lady Martha attended performances at Ricketts later in the same month.

Individual circus acts were performed in larger towns prior to Ricketts, and entrepreneurs traveled to rural America exhibiting wild animals. The first lion displayed in America was in 1716. In 1796, one of the most noteworthy events in circus history occurred when Captain Jacob Crowninshield arrived in New York harbor with the first living elephant in North America. The earliest item of circus memorabilia in my collection is a complete newspaper dated July 25, 1796, which has an advertisement promoting that elephant.

Early American circus memorabilia is scarce, especially items from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some of the easiest items to find from the mid-1800s are articles in weekly news magazines like “Harper’s Weekly,” “Gleason’s Pictorial” and “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.” Prices on these publications vary widely depending on content. Civil War issues bring the highest prices. The three engravings shown below can usually be found for $10 to $25 each.

This engraving depicts William Hanlon on the flying trapeze in New York City’s Academy of Music. It appeared in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” in 1861. In 1891, while performing with Forepaugh’s Circus in Lyons, Iowa, William Hanlon’s trapeze bar broke. He plunged to the ground and died on the spot.

On July 13, 1865, P.T. Barnum’s first American Museum burned to the ground. This is one of two engravings published by Harper’s Weekly to illustrate the story inside. Barnum quickly re-opened the museum in a new location. Unfortunately, that museum also burned to the ground in 1888.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Stratton (General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren Stratton) were front-page news when they married in 1863. This “Harper’s Weekly” engraving is from a photograph by renowned photographer Matthew Brady.

Below are a few items from the mid-1800s. Generally, items from this era are more in the “circus-related” category than items actually from circuses.

This CDV (Carte de Visite) was published by E. & H.T. Anthony from a photographic negative by Matthew Brady. On the back are printed signatures of Charles S. Stratton (Tom Thumb) and Lavinia Warren Stratton. CDVs of Tom Thumb are fairly easy to find. I purchased this CDV for $7.50 while visiting Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston, Mass., in the early 1970s. In recent years, others like it have been selling for $30 to $50.

Chang & Eng were the original Siamese Twins. They arrived in America in 1829 and were exhibited around the country, including in Barnum’s American Museum. This early broadside advertising the pair sold on eBay in 2007 for $412.77.

This booklet was sold at Barnum & Van Amburgh’s Museum in 1866. It was Barnum’s second museum. The 70-page booklet had illustrated stories about the animals in the museum and the biographies of P.T. Barnum & Isaac A. Van Amburgh. A fascinating addendum featured a couple of pages documenting the amount of ticket sales for individual cities hosting the Jenny Lind tour, promoted by P.T. Barnum. Value is $80 to $120.

During the American tour of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, which began in September 1850, the singer gave 93 concerts, netting P.T. Barnum approximately $500,000. This 1853 sheet music featuring the singer on the cover was published after Jenny Lind returned to England. It sold on eBay in 2007 for $45.

Books on the subject of the early American circus are sought after by every serious collector of circus. Almost all general history circus books have a section on the roots of the circus, particularly the American circus. However, there are a few books that really stand out because they provide special emphasis to the early years.

“Annals of the American Circus 1793-1829,” by Stuart Thayer, was published by Rymack Printing Company in 1976. It is almost impossible to find today. I was fortunate to locate my copy on eBay this year for less than $20. It was a stroke of luck, not likely to happen again. In the past year, searching the top-25 Internet out-of-print book sites—which include 40 large bookstores and 20,000 individual dealers—I have not found any other copies of this book. Estimated value is $200-$300.

“Annals of the American Circus 1830-1847 Volume II,” by Stuart Thayer, was published by Peanut Butter Publishing, Inc. in 1986. This Volume II of the “Annals of the American Circus” is also scarce. In 2008 a copy of this book sold on eBay for $62.21. Today, I can find just a handful of copies on the Internet, sold by only two dealers. One dealer’s price is $167 the other is $698.

“Traveling Showmen—The American Circus Before the Civil War,” by Stuart Thayer, was published by Astley & Ricketts, Ltd. in 1997. Prices range from $75.00 to 137.

“Pioneer Circuses of the West,” by Chang Reynolds, was published by Westernlore Press in 1966. Copies of this book can be found for $25 or less.

“Elephants and Quaker Guns—A History of Civil War and Circus Days,” by Jane Chapman Whitt, was published by Vantage Press in 1966. Value of this book is $15 or less.

“California’s Pioneer Circus,” by Joseph Andrew Rowe, edited by Albert Dressler, was published by H.S. Crocker Company, Inc. in 1926. These are the memoirs and personal correspondence of the circus businesses owned by Joseph Andrew Rowe in the 1850s gold rush country. The printing of this book was limited to 1,250 numbered copies and the one shown here is Number 894. Some copies of the book can be found on the Internet from $10 to $25.

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1 “Bandwagon” – July-August 1972 – “A Note on the Decline of the Circus,” by Stuart Thayer.

2 “Bandwagon” – March-April 1977 – “Kicking Sawdust in the Center Ring of Memories, The Story of J. Augustus Jones and His Circuses,” by John C. Kunzog. Also in “Hobbies” – January 1947 – “Circus Songsters,” by A. Morton Smith.

3 “Bandwagon” – May-June 2004 – “Strong Women and Crossed-Dressed Men: Representation of Gender by Circus Performers During the Golden Age of the American Circus—1860-1930,” by Marcy W. Murray.

4 “Back Yard” – June 30, 1998 – “Hertzberg Museum, San Antonio, Tx. – Circus Posters and Memorabilia from the Golden Age of the Circus, 1840-1940.”

5 “History Magazine” – October-November 2001 – “Step Right Up,” by Bob Brooke.
6 “Bandwagon” – September-October 1971 – “The Frontier and the Circus,” by Fred D. Pfening, III.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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