15 Vintage Photos from America’s First Circuses
Take a special, black-and-white look at the public and private life of circus people at the beginning of the 20th century.
The circus in America
By the time circuses came to America in the 1800s they had already been very popular in Europe. The Circus of Pepin and Breschard, the very first circus in America, toured down the East coast from 1800 to 1820. It traveled from Montreal, Canada, down the east coast of the United States, and then to Havana, Cuba. In 1871, P.T. Barnum started P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum and it saw great success until his death in 1891. It then merged with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth toured Europe. Then in 1919, Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth was bought by the Ringling Bros. Circus and by the mid-1900s big top tent circus tours were a thing of the past and circuses began being held in permanent venues. Take a look at what some of the early circus performances in America looked like. P.T. Barnum’s circus started as a museum, but check out these other weird museums you never knew existed.
1936: The Cumberlands Horse Act ride bareback on a troupe of trotting horses in a circus ring. These rare photos show what life was like in the 1950s.
1963: A woman demonstrates how to master the skill of fire-eating. These vintage Christmas photos will fill you with nostalgia.
The lion lady
1938: Lion tamer Priscilla Kayes completes a performance with her temperamental partners.
1959: Kathy Grant poses with an elephant on the set of “The Big Circus” in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Check out these vintage photos of birthdays through the decades.
Somersault through the air
1952: “The Great Rasini and his Rocket Car,” hangs onto his car as it does a somersault in the air before landing on the canvas net.
The trapeze swingers
1935: The Concellos Acrobats swing into action. Another 34 years later, the competition is upped with this death-defying circus act.
1936: Mysteries lie around every corner and tent bottom for these curious circus children in Roswell, New Mexico. This is what the Miss Universe pageant used to look like.
1956: Ella Mills was part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. She was advertised to fans as “586 Pounds of Feminine Charm.” She sewed all of her gowns herself and added extra fabric to them to make herself look larger.
From the ring to the streets
1948: A line of circus elephants romp down Second Avenue in New York City on their way to their annual appearance at Madison Square Garden. Not only can elephants learn and respond to trainers, find out 14 of their other amazing abilities.
Under the knife
1936: The ‘Knife Throwing Denvers’ showcase their terrifying confidence.
1981: Marcia Greenis performs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus after winning a clown competition in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Now, take a look at the most glamourous vintage photos from the 1950s.