Roll up, roll up: the circus is in town! With everything from clowns and acrobats to exotic wild animals on show, the 19th-century circus thrilled adults and children alike. And it was a mainstay of cultural life in America and Europe for decades. But these days, we wouldn’t dream of allowing lots of the daring acts you’d see at these shows in the 1800s. So, ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to see inside the forgotten world of the traveling Victorian bazaar, take your seats… the show is about to begin.
40. Well-mannered lion
Of course, lions and other big cats were a staple of circuses in the 19th century. Fortunately for the demure-looking woman here, this feline seems to be especially well-behaved. This brave lady – pictured here in 1897 – was billed as a lion tamer. And she certainly seems to have found a way to keep this handsome beast calm!
39. Barnum & Bailey
It’s summertime and the people of Portland, Oregon, are in for a thrill. The famous Barnum & Bailey Circus has arrived on its first-ever visit to their city! P.T. Barnum had made himself a household name in 19th-century America with his circus, which was extravagantly titled “The Greatest Show on Earth.” James A. Bailey – already an experienced circus man – bought Barnum’s circus after the great man’s death and would retain his legendary name.
38. Tattoos and trapezes
Here in the 21st century, we’re rather used to seeing men and women covered in ostentatious tattoos. But an inked lady was a much rarer sight in the past. This is Maud Stevens Wagner, a circus performer born in Kansas in 1877. She was an accomplished contortionist and trapeze artist – as well as the canvas for countless elaborate tattoos.
37. Baggy pants
This far from jolly clown was photographed in Strabane in modern-day Northern Ireland. And we have to ask: would you smile if you had to wear pants like his? He was apparently touring with Hanneford’s Royal Canadian Circus. Incredibly, this institution has antecedents dating all the way back to 1778, according to the Sahib Shrine website. In that year, London street performer Edwin Hanneford is said to have exhibited his foot juggling skills before King George III.
36. Strong man
The strong man was a perennially popular act in circus performance and one of the best-known was Eugen Sandow, who is seen here on the right. Though the identity of his be-furred buddy remains a mystery. The website of the U.K.’s Natural History Museum in London describes Sandow in admiring tones. It writes, “From music hall to posing pouch, the Victorian strongman – and dreamboat – Eugen Sandow rose to fame as an international celebrity and sex symbol during the close of the 19th century.”
35. Penny farthing
The original caption for this image from the 1890s reads, “Lady circus bicyclist in front of high bicycle.” This particular bike is of course what the British call a penny farthing. If you’ve ever had a go on one, you’ll know that riding it successfully requires courage and skill. The female cyclist can be seen here wearing a rather extraordinary costume – hardly a conventional outfit for biking. But it no doubt it appealed to the circus-goers!
34. The cop and the clown
This peculiar image turned up in a store room of the Discovery Museum in the northern English city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Sadly, this original glass slide had no cataloguing information, so date and location are unknown. It’s an intriguing image, though – the stern look of disapproval from the police constable is priceless. The clown, on the other hand, is downright scary with his huge feet and unidentifiable animal skin.
33. Snakes alive
Exotic animals of all kinds were favored by circuses and this tangle of snakes would have fitted the bill excellently. We can imagine the fascinated horror that 19th-century audiences would have felt as they watched a man garlanded by two large, writhing snakes. In fact, he looks remarkably relaxed for a someone in his position!
32. Boss canvasman
The stars of the circus were clowns, acrobats, animal acts and other performers. But the show couldn’t go on without a legion of backroom workers who made the magic happen. One of those was the man pictured here in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. This is boss canvasman of the Ringling Brothers circus James Whalen. His job was to make sure that the big top was in good order – an essential task that most circus audiences probably took for granted.
31. Horse and cart in miniature
This photograph by H.F. Cooper taken in the Northern Irish city of Strabane shows performers from the Hanneford Royal Canadian Circus. And they look very elegant in their period costume, don’t they? The cute little pony and trap completes the charming picture. The Hanneford family had been touring as early as 1803 and the tradition continued through the 19th century and on into the 20th.
30. Captain Martin Van Buren Bates
Captain Martin Van Buren Bates was a giant of a man, and he took advantage of his mighty physique by making a living from it with P.T. Barnum’s circus. He is seen here in about 1870 posing with someone described as being of average height. According to Blue Ridge Country, Bates stood nearly 8 feet tall and had fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy. He weighed in at 525 pounds and it was said that one of his huge boots could hold nearly 13 kilograms of grain. Although why he would want to fill his footwear with cereal remains a puzzle.
29. Giantess with parents
Here’s Anna Haining towering above her mother and father. She was reportedly some 7 feet 6 inches tall, which makes it all the luckier that she met and married the 7-foot 11-inch Captain Martin Van Buren Bates while both were working for P.T. Barnum as circus giants. Haining and Van Buren’s extraordinary stature meant they were able to tour internationally as “The Largest Married Couple in the World.”
28. Cute cub
These two Japanese women are from the left Tehako Kato and Harumi Hashamoto. Though the name of the cute cub they’re holding is unknown. The two were trapeze artists and plied their high-flying trade with a balletic performance titled “Blossom Time.” Presumably they left the cub behind while they soared above the audience in the big top.
27. Circus train
A group of men sporting a fine selection of hats can be seen here standing by a splendid Barnum & Bailey railway car. Whether they’re staffers or a welcoming party of local citizens happy to see the big show arriving in town is unknown. For reference, the circus train was an essential element of the traveling circus in the days before freeways criss-crossed the U.S.
26. General Tom Thumb
Here’s the great circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum with one of his best-known stars: General Tom Thumb. Charles Sherwood Stratton – his real name – was a household favorite from the 1840s and drew admiration from both Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria, according to the BBC. Barnum signed up Stratton after happening upon him in the Connecticut city of Bridgeport in 1842 when the latter was just four years old.
25. The circus has arrived!
As much as anything, staging a big-top traveling circus was a massive logistical feat. You can see the sheer scale of the operation in this image of the Sells Floto Circus unloading from its train. Livestock, caravans and all the paraphernalia of the circus had to be packed up and stowed as the show moved on to another city. And then the whole lot had to be unloaded and assembled again!
24. Six leopards
Here’s a pack of six leopards – apparently happy to pose with the woman who is presumably their trainer. Leopards, jaguars and panthers were said to be especially difficult to train. The lady pictured is Madame Louise Morelli, and she was working for the famous English animal collector and showman Frank Bostock. Madame Morelli performed in various European and American venues with her leopards – including Coney Island’s Luna Park.
23. Dog-faced boy
According to a 2018 profile on the Vintage News website, in 1884 P.T. Barnum announced the American debut of “Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy” in his usual grandiose style. Barnum said his new act was, “The most prodigious paragon of all prodigies secured in over 50 years.” Jo-Jo’s name was Fyodor Yevtishchev, and the Russian had a hereditary condition called hypertrichosis. For reference, this caused hair to sprout all over his body.
22. Clown down time
This image offers us a candid behind-the-scenes glimpse of clowns as they prepare to go before their audience in the ring. These performers in this photograph from 1899 are with the Circus Busch – a German outfit owned and managed by Jakob Busch. We see the clowns in their rather cramped dressing room with a dog – perhaps a pet, possibly a performer – keeping watch.
21. Tough teeth
Combining unbelievable flexibility with terrifically tough teeth, this double act must have gone down a storm at the circus. And obtaining dental insurance was almost certainly out of the question! Unfeasible balancing acts and implausible contortionists often appeared in 19th-century circuses and side shows – the weirder, the better. As you can see, these two found a clever way of combining the two disciplines.
20. Let sleeping elephants lie
Circus elephants can be seen here enjoying some downtime in the peace of the big top between performances. This photograph is believed to be from the late 1860s or early 1870s. And it captures a tranquil moment in the big tent which will soon be filled with an enthusiastic crowd. But for the moment, the massive beasts can sleep and perhaps dream of a life of freedom in a distant land.
19. The Texas Giants
These four strapping fellows in this photograph from about 1880 went by the name of “The Texas Giants” in their appearances in P.T. Barnum’s shows. Their title was well-chosen since they were all almost 8-feet-tall – at least according to the not always reliable Barnum. In fact, the four were brothers: Guss, Shadrack, Jack and Frank Shields. The pay on offer – $100 dollars a week – had apparently tempted them away from their Texas farming life and into the thrilling world of the circus.
18. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
In all but name, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show can fairly be described as a circus. Over 200 performers staged scenes from the old West including horse riding, rope tricks and mock stagecoach attacks. And they were all orchestrated by William F. Cody – the real Buffalo Bill. This image from about 1890 shows some of the performers gathered around the mobile ticket office which advertises special rates for children. As well as performing in America, the show was a huge hit in Europe in cities such as Paris, Rome and London.
17. Jumbo the Elephant
You might think that this Sudanese elephant was called “Jumbo” because of his size – but you’d be wrong. In fact, large things are called “jumbo” because of the elephant, who introduced the word into common usage. Jumbo originally entertained Londoners in England at Regent’s Park Zoo until P.T. Barnum snapped him up in 1882. He took the massive 10 foot 6 inch tall mastodon around America – billing him with his customary hyperbole as “the world’s largest elephant.”
16. Leopard print
We know very little about these two handsome characters in this image from 1890. Their eye-catching leopard-skin costumes are entirely modest to our eyes. But in the 19th century, showing this much skin would have been highly risqué. The relatively scanty costumes worn by circus performers such as acrobats and trapeze artists look demure to us. But for audiences then they would have added a frisson of the forbidden to the circus experience.
Born in 1825, George L. Fox is pictured here when he was about 50. He was perhaps the most famous American clown of his era – known for his high-energy slapstick humor. Many consider Fox to have been a key influence on the later cinematic comics such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Tragically, his white make-up – with its poisonously high lead content – had a huge impact on his mental health and eventually killed him in 1877.
14. Circus horses
Circuses often featured equine acts, and here we see one Blanche Allerty sporting a fetching outfit and displaying her skills in about 1890. She was performing with the Cirque Molier – a private French outfit established in Paris by Ernest Molier, according to Sothebys. And the latter was himself a highly accomplished horseman. The performers were all French aristocrats and invitation-only shows were mounted for the entertainment of the Parisian elite.
13. The whole troupe
This 1892 photograph shows an entire circus company probably somewhere in Wisconsin. They’re all here – clowns, acrobats and some of the backroom staff. And the 11-strong brass band reposes in front of this formidable group. As well as having an important role to play in the drama of the performance, the musicians had another key role. They would lead the circus parade to announce the big show’s appearance in a new town, according to WQXR-FM.
12. A clown and his dog
Say hello to Charlie Bell and his dog Trixie. The former – real name Charles D. Chase – was born in 1886. He ran away from home to join the circus aged just seven, according to his 1964 obituary in the The New York Times. Starting out as an acrobat, Chase eventually became a much-loved clown and often performed with his dogs Honey Box and Trixie disguised as elephants or rabbits. He performed for 35 years with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
11. Circassian Queen
Zula Zelick – known as the Circassian Queen – poses on a swing in this alluring image from 1870. In what you might judge to be an early example of cultural appropriation, Zelick was famed for her large, Afro-style hair-do. On occasion, she added to her manufactured exoticism by draping a large snake around her neck.
10. Dog show
This elaborate frontage is the entrance to a French animal circus pitched on a Parisian street. A sign on the front proclaims Palais des Singes. “Singe” is French for monkey, but only dogs are displayed outside to tempt people into the show. The distinguished French photographer Eugene Atget captured this image in 1898. For reference, he was noted for his documentary style photography of life in late 19th-century Paris.
9. Elephant balancing act
This photograph is from a stash of images that were uncovered by staff at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Discovery Museum in the U.K., and we have little concrete information about the picture. But the fellow balancing on the upraised knee of the elephant is almost certainly the animal’s keeper. And the sight of an elephant in a northern English city in the 19th century must have been thrilling indeed for the locals.
8. Circus procession
The procession was a key element of the circus business – designed to announce that the show had come to town. The city here is Nottingham in England, and the image was captured by a photographer called A. W. Bird. Four horses can be seen pulling a carriage bearing what looks like a teepee through a throng of enthusiastic onlookers.
7. Circus crowd
This image gives us a clear idea of the excitement that a circus could generate among the general public when it came to town. The folks milling around at this entrance are waiting to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In its day, it was the best known of America’s traveling circuses, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
6. Clown preparation
A Barnum & Bailey clown is seen here getting ready to appear in the ring. Although it rather looks like the clowning has started already for the benefit of the photographer. Unless it’s routine for the tailor to sew up the clown’s costume while he’s still in it! In fact, the comic’s pants look way beyond the remotest possibility of repair.
5. Therese Renz
This impossibly elegant lady is the German trick rider Therese Renz – photographed in about 1895 with her supine steed. She was born into a circus family 37 years earlier in Belgium to a ringmaster father and a horse-riding performer mother. Renz started her training at the tender age of 13 in Switzerland and made her big top debut just a couple of years later, according to Horse Nation. Incredibly, her long equine career continued until she was into her 70s.
4. Balancing act
This is another act from the illustrious Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Three acrobats balance precariously on a ladder before an awe-struck big-top audience. Acrobats were central to circuses from the earliest days. The National Fairground and Circus Archive – hosted by England’s University of Sheffield – credits Phillip Astley as the founder of the modern circus. And his shows certainly included acrobats back in the 18th century.
3. Bearded lady
The bearded lady was a standard fixture in sideshows and circuses back in the day. And this particular fuzzy-chinned female toured with various troupes as Madame Devere. Though seen here in about 1890, she was born 48 years earlier in Brooksville, Kentucky, according to the website Show History. In his book Monsters: Human Freaks in the Gilded Age, Michael Mitchell noted that her beard was measured at a magnificent 14 inches in 1884 – a record length.
2. Elephant at the zoo
Here is Jumbo the Elephant entertaining visitors to Regent’s Park Zoo in London, England. He arrived at the zoo in 1860 at the age of just four years old. The animal then stayed there until he was 21 when circus supremo P.T. Barnum bought the pachyderm and took him to America. Jumbo was the first African elephant ever to travel to the U.S. and during his circus career was seen by some 20 million people, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
With the handler just out of shot – but a formidable whip and stick visible – a leopard leaps over six brave acrobats. In the 19th and 20th centuries, animal acts in the circus were commonplace. But in more recent years, increasing numbers of people have looked askance at the use of animals for entertainment. Indeed, many U.S. states, counties and cities have enacted restrictions or outright bans on live animal acts.