The Jubilee

A Short History of the Circus

The Greatest Show on Earth

In 1881, Barnum partnered with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson for 'P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United.’ Later shortened to the 'Barnum & London Circus’ and eventually known as the ‘Barnum and Bailey Circus.’

Philip Astley: The Father Of The Modern Circus

The modern circus was actually created in England by Philip Astley (1742-1814), a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman. The son of a cabinet-maker and veneer-cutter, Astley had served in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) as part of Colonel Elliott's 15th Light Dragons regiment, where he displayed a remarkable talent as a horse-breaker and trainer. Upon his discharge, Astley chose to imitate the trick-riders who performed, with increasing success, all over Europe.

In 1768, Astley settled in London and opened a riding-school near Westminster Bridge, where he taught in the morning and performed his "feats of horsemanship" in the afternoon. In London at this time, modern commercial theater (a word that encompassed all sorts of performing arts) was in the process of developing. Astley's building featured a circular arena that he called the circle, or circus, and which would later be known as the ring.

The circus ring, however, was not Astley's invention; it was devised earlier by other performing trick-riders. In addition to allowing audiences to keep sight of the riders during their performances (something that was next to impossible if the riders were forced to gallop in a straight line), riding in circles in a ring also made it possible, through the generation of centrifugal force, for riders to keep their balance while standing on the back of galloping horses. Astley's original ring was about sixty-two feet in diameter. Its size was eventually settled at a diameter of forty-two feet, which has since become the international standard for all circus rings.

By 1770, Astley's considerable success as a performer had outshone his reputation as a teacher. After two seasons in London, he needed to bring some novelty to his performances. Consequently, he hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers, interspersing their acts between his equestrian displays. Another addition to the show was a character borrowed from the Elizabethan theater, the clown, who filled the pauses between acts with burlesques of juggling, tumbling, rope-dancing, and even trick-riding. With that, the modern circus—a combination of equestrian displays and feats of strength and agility—was born.

The American Traveling Circus

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown (1802?-1834) became the first circus entrepreneur to replace the usual wooden construction with a full canvas tent, a system that had become commonplace by the mid-1830s. J. Purdy Brown came from the region of Somers, New York, where a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey (1775-1845) had purchased a young African elephant, which he exhibited around the country with great success.

In 1871, former museum promoter and impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), in association with circus entrepreneur William Cameron Coup (1837-95), launched the P.T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a traveling show whose "museum" part was an exhibition of animal and human oddities soon to become an integral part of the American circus, the Sideshow.

In 1872, Coup devised a system of daily transportation by rail for their circus. Another of Coup's innovations of that year was the addition of a second ring. The circus had become by far the most popular form of entertainment in America, and Barnum and Coup's enterprise was America's leading circus. Ever the businessman, Coup resolved to increase the capacity of their tent. Due to structural limitations, this could only be done effectively by increasing the tent's length, which resulted in hampering the view for large sections of the audience. The addition of a second ring, then a third (1881) and, later, up to seven rings and stages solved the problem physically, if not artistically. It could be argued that it changed the focus of the show to emphasize spectacle over artistry. For better or worse, multiple rings and stages became another unique feature of the American circus.


Jando, Dominique. “Short History of the Circus.”, n.p., n.d.,