Circus History

The circus feels so quintessentially American to me – in a ‘warts and all’ sense.

There’s this rollicking, adventurousness to circus that lives outside the realm of social norms. Started by cowboy-entrepreneurs and immigrants, it’s gritty and inventive.

There’s also a ferocity in the capitalism behind it. You can read it in the intensity of the routes, and the shrinking number of troupes as the bigger organizations took over.

Combing through these routes and posters, you can see the impact of the Civil War, then the transcontinental rail road, and the great Depression.

So when e.e. cummings says “damn everything but the circus”, I get it. It’s not just escapism.

The Ringling Museum web archive hosts 4,977 vintage poster advertisements in one of their digital archives. These posters have remained wonderfully iconic and so this archive became the starting point of my circus history research.  I scraped the metadata from each piece throughout their archive. Their archive has a poster dating all the way back to 1805.

The Circus Historical Society hosts an incredibly robust set of routes traveled by the various troupes. I’ve started collecting and cleaning the route data into more readily usable datasets. Though there’s some initial, smaller mapping projects from this, I’m currently looking for server space to host a database that will cover over 100 years of route data from over 100 different troupes. The database will carry geographic information as well as show dates, basic troupe information, and contextual notes. The oldest route map from the CHS is from 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.