How the Railroad Changed the Circus And How the Circus Transformed American Cultural Identity


Have you ever fed an elephant? Have you ever seen a person do tricks while riding a horse? When was the last time you saw a clown or acrobats flip high in the air? Have you ever heard a big band orchestra play? People used to do all of this and so much more in one day at the circus.

Circus Parade, New York City, 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The circus used to be the most popular show in the United States. The day started with a parade that went through town in the morning. They put on two main shows later in the day. Besides the main show, there were lots of other things to do, hear, and see. The circus became one of the biggest businesses in the country.

The circus was like its own town of tents. There was a Big Top, the tent for the big show. They also set up other tents for other attractions. People ate food, listened to music, and saw many performances. There were tents for wild animals and interesting people. Posters advertised a full day of fun. People spent the whole day at the circus.

The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, ca. 1899. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The circus used trains to take the show across the country. Usually, the whole town closed for the day so that everyone could go. For the first time, people across the country saw the same show. But the circus brought more than exciting sights and sounds. It also shared ideas about the world.

The Circus Comes to the United States

The circus originated England, where the shows’ main act included horse riders performing tricks. When Americans adapted the circus to their own audiences, the circus became something new. American circuses added bands, jugglers, clowns, acrobats, and tightrope walkers. Over time, the circus kept adding even more to its show. People got to see wild animals in person for the first time. The shows needed many tents to house all the acts.

Sells Brothers' Enormous Shows, 1879. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Circus Before the Railroad

Before trains, horses pulled shows from town to town in wagons. These horse-pulled shows made a grand entrance into town. This entrance eventually became the circus parade and is what the poster is showing. This exciting display got people excited to go see the show.

"Sands & Co.: Making Their Public Entry into New York," ca 1850. Courtesy of the Tibbals Circus Collection of the Ringling Museum.

Land travel was tough and slow. Because of the rough travel, people called them “mud shows.” Mud shows traveled short distances between towns. Wagon circuses could only travel 10-20 miles per day. They had to stop and play at every town along a route. This meant that the circus had to do shows in towns so small that they could not earn a profit.

Circus Wagon, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Transcontinental Railroad- 1869

The Transcontinental Railroad linked America’s east coast to the west coast. Prior to the railroad it took 4-6 months to cross the nation. Now, people could cross the whole country in 7 days. Soon after the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad companies joined the western portion and eastern portion of the railroad in May 1869, newspapers ran rail travel ads. This is an ad for train travel from California to the east coast.

Marysville Daily Appeal, Volume XIX, Number 113, 14 May 1869. Advertisement for the Central Pacific Railroad selling express train tickets from Sacramento out east. Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1869, a circus traveled by train for the first time. Dan Castello’s Great Circus and Egyptian Caravan proved that moving the circus by railroad was possible. However, travel by train was not easy.

Expansion of the Railroad

At first, railroads only linked major cities. As the railroads expanded, they reached into rural areas. This enabled big-city access to people living in small towns.

Between 1870 and 1890, the amount of railroad track in the United States tripled, dramatically changing the U.S. Map Courtesy of the National Geographic Society.

More circuses switched to rail during this time to serve larger audiences. Traveling via the railroad, the train could move the circus 100 miles in a day. Railroad circuses did not stop in small towns; they preferred big cities. Big cities had more people in them. More people meant more tickets. More tickets meant more profits.

Expansion of Circus Routes

Circuses visited new cities across the country each year. By 1900, many cities and towns had a train station. Circuses got bigger and bigger. They added more cities to their route each year and traveled greater distances each year.

This map shows how one circus went to more new cities over time. P.T. Barnum’s circus began in the Northeast. It added new cities each year. By 1907, people living in New York and California saw the same show. Other circuses did this too. The railroad brought shows to even larger audiences.

Excursion Trains

Even though the railroad circuses did not stop in their town, rural people still attended them. If you lived outside of a big city, you could take the train into the city for the show.

Circuses partnered with the railroad to bring more audience members to the show. These were called excursion trains. Railroads added excursion trains from small towns within 50 miles of any city the circus played. They sold tickets for train rides to the circus. This poster is not just a circus ad; it also advertises excursion trains.

Poster, The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, Special Cheap Rate Excursions from Everywhere by All Lines of Travel, 1891. Courtesy of The Ringling Museum.

The railroads and the circuses worked together to keep excursion train rates low. To maximize attendance and profits, the circus sponsored excursion train rides. The circus wanted these trips and circus tickets to be low-cost. Keeping the circus affordable meant that nearly everyone could afford a ticket.

Advertisements, “Visalia Circus Excursion September 15 Barnum & Bailey Round Trip $1,” Hanford Weekly Journal, September 12, 1905. Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Railroad companies also advertised excursion trains. This ad is not for the circus; it is a newspaper ad for a train to the circus. Circuses arranged these excursions trains to sell as many tickets as possible for their show. Additionally, the railroads benefitted from an increase in passengers. For the first time, people of all ages and backgrounds could attend the same show coast to coast.

Circus Railcars

Loading the show on and off a train took skill. It was like a giant puzzle. Circus crews had to figure out how many train cars to use and the order in which to load all the cars. Switching railroad companies made moving the circus difficult because different railroads had different sizes of train cars. That meant the circus would have to figure out a new way to load and unload the whole show every time they changed railroads, which was often.

To solve this problem, circuses made their own train cars called flatcars. Each flatcar was the same length. These flatcars connected the cars together to create a flat surface. As the photo shows, this let workers roll the wagons along the train, down a ramp, and off the train.

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. 1932. Courtesy of Circus World.

Circus Logistics

The circus began to run like a machine. Up to four trains would arrive and leave at staggered times. This meant that the circus could arrive in a city by morning, set up and put on the grand show, and arrive in another city up to 100 miles away by the next morning. The circus traveled so skillfully that it became famous throughout the world. The United States military even asked the circus to show them how to efficiently load and unload their own gear.

Employees sit among baggage wagons loaded on a railroad flatcar, 1907. Courtesy of Circus World.

When the circus came to town, up to four trains arrived at different times. The first train arrived at dawn. It carried the crew and first load of equipment needed to set up the circus. They placed poles in the ground to stake out the tents. The second train brought more gear, like canvas to cover the tents. The third train carried props, sets, and costumes. The last train arrived by mid-morning. It brought the performers, both animal and human.

The four trains also left at different times. Near the end of the day, the crew packed up the circus. They had to load everything back onto the trains. Crews started taking down tents during the last show. When visitors left at the end of the show, a lot of the circus was already gone. The first train was on its way to the next show. They arrived in the next town at dawn, ready to do it all over again.

The Circus Becomes a Big Business

The circus could make a lot of money if it could sell enough tickets. There were many different circuses and competition between them was intense. Each circus wanted to have the largest audience. They wanted to give the biggest and best show.

Different circuses could make more money by working together. The combined circuses put on massive shows and made huge amounts of money. Some circuses used more than 100 cars to move the show! The circus was now a big business.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey: 100 Railway Cars, 1923. Courtesy of the Tibbals Circus Collection of The Ringling Museum.

Advertisements and Advance Crews

Circus employees known as “advance men,” or the “advance crew,” arrived in cities months before the arrival of the circus. Only men did this type of work. They made sure that the logistics of the show, including the location, food, water, were ready to go. As the show date got nearer, these men also covered the city with advertisements.

The circus business relied on its profits to keep the show on the road. So, advertising became a huge part of that business. The circus created excitement. The advance crew covered the city with ads for the show. The advance train, pictured here, brought this team to each city. The train car even had a printing press so they could make even more posters as they traveled.

Barnum and Bailey Circus, 1895. Courtesy of Circus World.

Circus Hype!

This photograph is just one example of the large ads that the advance crew would put up all over a town. They hung advertisements known as “bill posters” on walls, billboards, and buildings throughout the town. However, they did not just hang posters to advertise the show.

Advance Crew, 1906. Courtesy of The Ringling Museum.

Three weeks before the show, a member of the advance crew came to town each week. They did a few things to get people excited. They rode through town playing music and making noise. One week they might parade through town with singers and trumpets. The next week an elephant might pull an organ through the streets. The last advance man came to town the day before the circus. He made sure everything was ready for the show.

Circus Parade, New York City, 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Circus Becomes Mainstream

When the circus came to town, it was like a holiday. The whole city took the day off. People of all ages and backgrounds went to the same show. Everyone — young and old, rich and poor — went to the circus. Everyone listened to big bands play. Everyone watched performers do flips and tricks. They even looked at and fed wild animals! Many people saw electricity for the first time at the circus.

John Robinson's Circus, 1930. Courtesy of Circus World.

But everyone also heard white minstrel bands performing in blackface. Everyone looked at people put on show just for their “strange” abilities or appearances. Everyone watched racist shows about history that celebrated colonization. The circus showed people what was supposed to be amazing, normal, odd, and scientific. This included ideas that spread racism, ableism, and other harmful beliefs.

Not Such A Great Show After All

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the circus helped define American culture and identity. The circus influenced the United States as it traversed the nation. The circus shared ideas about the world. These ideas spread all over the country. Not all these ideas were good. A lot of them were racist and inhumane. Circus songs had racist words. People were displayed like wild animals. The shows misrepresented history. The circus told people what was normal and what was weird. Sometimes what it told people was wrong. Many of these bad ideas are still a part of American life. The circus may be gone, but the show lives on.

The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena. [with] Smallest Man Alive [and] the Congo Giant, 1898. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The End.

Relevant Academic Standards

California Common Core State Standards, English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: RI 8.7, CCR 2, CCR 9

History–Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools: 8.6.1, 8.6.2, 8.12.4, 8.12.7

C3 Framework: D2.Eco.3.6-8, D2.Eco.7.6-8, D2.Geo.2.6-8, D2.Geo.4.6-8, D2.Geo.5.6-8, D2.Geo.7.6-8, D2.His.1.6-8, D2.His.11.6-8, D2.His.12.6-8, D2.His.13.6-8, D2.His.17.6-8, D3.2.6-8.