Visitors to the Bard Graduate Center’s “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010” are greeted by a wooden drum from 1835 upon which is painted the great seal of the United States. The instrument is a handsome symbol of the circus’s pedigree, which the curator Matthew Wittmann has fleshed out in great detail, with over 200 items from more than 30 lenders. He traces the circus’s debut in New York to August 7, 1793, when an Irishman named John Bill Ricketts created an open-air arena on Greenwich Street and performed equestrian feats. The crowd, according to one newspaper, “expressed their approbation by frequent clapping of hands, and at the conclusion, by a general huzza!” Spectators and impresarios had a symbiotic relationship: the former were hungry for cheap entertainment (not then abundant), and the latter were eager to tap a market of 40,000 people and quickly expanding.
A signal moment was January 1, 1842, when Phineas Taylor Barnum opened, at Broadway and Ann Street, Barnum’s American Museum. Previously, he was manager to an elderly African-American named Joice Heth, whom he billed as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington. He thrived on the outlandish: an early hit was the Feejee Mermaid, a half-monkey, half-fish. There is a daguerreotype of Barnum with another moneymaker, General Tom Thumb, who was, in Barnum’s words, “not two feet in height, and weighed less than sixteen pounds.” Standing on a table, Thumb is wearing a suit and a policeman’s cap jauntily askew and resting a hand on his boss’s shoulder; the latter looks pleased. Thumb was one of the circus’s most popular lusus naturae, or human wonders; in an advertisement, he poses as Cain, Napoleon, and Romulus.
One of the most impressive items is an 1846-47 portrait by Edwin Henry Landseer of Isaac Van Amburgh, an animal trainer who in 1834 visited the New York Zoological Institute, where he cavorted with lions, panthers, and tigers. He is depicted in a cage pointing manfully toward a panther as it cowers. The artwork measures nearly six by eight feet. In the 1860s, the performer Jacob Showles would lie on the back of a trotting horse and use his legs to juggle and project a ball over banners above. His well-worm globe on display is made of wood covered in cloth and has a diameter of 26 inches.
Showles’s brother-in-law was Dan Rice, one of the nineteenth century’s most popular talking clowns (though not beloved in New York—the Tribune dubbed him a “grammatical assassin”). In 1863, the sculptor Leonard Welles Volk—who had fashioned a bronze of Abraham Lincoln—created a marble bust of Rice with a cloth wrapped around the chest that suggests a Roman senator. In an ironic twist, it is here placed next to his oversize silk pants with the iconic red and white stripes.
Walt Whitman wrote in 1856, “The Circus is a national institution. Though originating elsewhere, and in ages long previous to the beginning of History, it has here reached a perfection attained nowhere else.” Indeed, what is now considered the circus’s golden age dawned in Brooklyn in 1871, when Barnum debuted his massive Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome. Five years before, Lewis B. Lent had been one of the first showmen to send his performers on tour by railroad (rather than wagon), which enhanced mobility and resulted in circuses visiting big cities. (He was also the first to assign acts jaw-breaking titles, such as Equescurriculum and Hippozoonomadon.) In 1872, Barnum’s traveling circus went as far west as Topeka and was the first ever to gross $1 million. Here are some lithographic ads of Lent’s musicians in handsome uniforms modeled on the French imperial guard.
In 1880, Barnum merged productions with James Bailey. (The five boroughs were consolidated into New York City in 1898.) The circus was under pressure from attacks by those who thought it morally corrupting. Barnum responded by purchasing from London’s Royal Zoological Society an elephant named Jumbo. Billed as the “Children’s Giant Pet,” the animal was terrifically popular, inspiring products like trading cards and a glass cake-holder with a Jumbo handle. After the animal was fatally struck by a train, Barnum held a dinner in Rochester at which each guest was given a sliver of the tusk. The ivory powder accumulated in the slicing was sprinkled over a jelly course. (Jumbo’s skeleton is at the American Museum of Natural History.)
The twilight of the golden age fell in 1919, following the debut of the combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There are some evocative photographs of the clowns by Edward J. Kelty, known as the Cecil B. DeMille of circus photography. One of the odder items in the show belonged to the twenties performer Friede DeMarlo, who was known for an act called the Iron Jaw. Her body would be swung around by a leather strap (on display) into which she’d bitten; the teeth marks are visible. In the thirties the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project subsidized out-of-work entertainers, but the depression left the circus permanently crippled. A series of Weegee photographs from the forties of audience members have fascinating period details. Owing to a labor dispute, the Ringling season of 1956 was curtailed. Life intoned that a “magical era had passed forever.” Today Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus, and Bindlestiff Family Cirkus keep the form alive though on a scale much diminished.
“Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.” Through February 3, 2013, Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street, 212-501-3000, bgc.bard.edu.