Photo Essay: History of the Traveling Circus

If you’ve ever been a teenager the chances are you will have fantasized about running away with the circus.

But was circus life as glamorous as you imagined it to be? A life of nomadic travel and new adventures certainly sounds appealing but what about the realities of life in a troupe?

This often involved traveling through the night to arrive at a new town, multiple shows and long hours of rehearsals only to pack up and move on again.

For its spectators, however, the circus had a magical quality taking them to a totally new reality.

But where did the circus concept first originate from? Where did it all begin?

Origins of the Traveling Circus

The circus has become a historic icon of the 20th century, though its roots trace back much further back. Ancient Rome was the first to introduce the circus, with its version including chariot races, trained animals, and acrobatics.

After the fall of Rome, the circus did not return to glory until 18th century England. It was an Englishman who brought the modern circus – which consisted of equestrian acts, tightrope-walkers, jugglers, performing dogs, and clowns – to the United States around 1792.

P.T. Barnum, later linked to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, and William Cameron Coup changed the scope of the traditional circus.

They added animal and human oddities, while tremendously increasing the scale of the show and touring techniques. Coup was the first to use trains to transport the circus from town to town in the US.

20th Century Developments

The circus heyday in the US took place between the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, after which TV and movies began to capture the imagination of many Americans, contributing to the circus’ decline.

Controversy has surrounded the circus over the last 30 years, as animal rights activists began to take issue with the treatment of animals on tour. Mounting pressure led to a ban on the use of animals for entertainment in many countries and an emphasis on human rather than animal performance in contemporary circus shows.

Historical Images

Several retrospective books capture the magic of the circus’ heyday, but there are also a multitude of photographs available online. Here are some images that provide a historical snapshot into the greatest show on earth.

1) Contortionist Girl

Anita Bonne: “The Dutch Contortionist Girl” from the 1940’s


2) Strong Women

Strong women, quite the anomaly at the time, were an intriguing part of the early 20th century circus.


3) Circus Clowns

Two of the early Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus clowns.

Double–M (formerly DoubleM2)

4) Horse-Unicorn

Horses were strapped with horns to give the appearance of a unicorn. Ringling Brothers sometimes used a single-horned goat for the same effect.


5) Dog Train

Many animals have been used throughout the history of the traveling circus, including dogs who were easily trained.


6) Headless Man

Magic has long been a part of the circus, and amazing effects were accomplished even 160 years ago, such as this Headless Man from 1855.


7) Circus Wagon

Ringling Brothers was not the only circus; here, a Cole Brothers Circus wagon awaits transport by a moving company.

Wisconsin Historical Images

8) Balancing Elephants

Elephants stand on their hind-legs and balance on each other in Madison Square Garden, circa 1943.

Wisconsin Historical Images

9) Snake Charmer

Snake charmers were an essential part of the circus in the early 20th century. Here children watch a snake charmer handle a humongous creature.

Wisconsin Historical Images

10) Human Trapeze

Though animals are probably most associated with the circus, human trapeze acts have also drawn crowds since its inception.

Wisconsin Historical Images

11) Circus Troupe

There’s always excitement when the circus comes to town. Circus troupes often traveled through the night, rolling into a new town every day.

Wisconsin Historical Images

12) Bearded Man

Clothes, caps, and odd facial hair – among other things – added to the mystery of circus performers.


13) Tattooed Lady

Circus jugglers and sword swallowers were often tattooed from head to toe. The popularity of tattooing in the late 19th and early 20th century can be directly attributed to the popularity of the circus.


Did you dream of running away with the circus? What are your childhood memories of the greatest show on earth? Let me know!

If you liked this, you might also like: 8 Ideals of Beauty from Around the World.

Note: We strongly condemn the exploitation of animals of any kind. The images above have been featured in order to illustrate the nature of the traditional circus format and its history, the mistreatment of animals being an influential factor of its decline in modern times.

Main image: Barnum and Bailey circus poster from 1905 by janwillemsen.

7 thoughts on “Photo Essay: History of the Traveling Circus”

  1. nice photo essay! The circus trapeze are the most thrilling shows I’ve ever been into! The part where they swallow or thrust swords or cut the body in half however remain to be a mystery for me…

  2. Hi Christine,
    I love this post! Thank you so much for digging out these old shots from an era past! In fact, I love the circus so much that we (my husband and I) did a feature for a Norwegian travel magazine last year. It was called the real vagabonds, and it shows off a real circus and the reality behind the scenes. If you fancy having a look, you can see some of the shots in our blog post

    Thanks again for your post, it’s simply beautiful and speaks straight to my heart.

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