Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010
Bard Graduate Center Galleries, New York, Through February 3
The American circus was suckled in New York. As immigrant performers streamed through its port, there arose New World twists on Old World themes: three rings, the flying trapeze, human cannonballs, cycling daredevils, thrills and chills—and the first elephant to set foot in the United States, in 1796. Who created and evolved the American Big Top and how—and why it mattered to millions of all ages, races, sexes and creeds—is the subject of this epic and entertaining exhibit, with 222 delightful, evocative artifacts (including costumes, props, trunks, posters, paintings and photos) spread across three cogently arranged and well-lit floors. (The 472-page companion book has 327 illustrations.)
As you’d expect, P.T. Barnum bestrides this exhibit like the Colossus of Legerdemain he was, capitalizing on his legendary promotional wizardry, inventive variety and breakthrough acts like General Tom Thumb and Jumbo the elephant. But there are other pivotal figures like John Bill Ricketts, the London-born horse wrangler who founded New York’s first circus in 1793, and Dan Rice, the stovepipe-hatted clown often cited as a model for Uncle Sam.
A recurrent theme is how the American circus adapted to reflect and even stir social changes. For instance, Barnum used Jumbo (“the child’s giant pet”) to transform it from barroom raunchiness into family entertainment. A typically shrewd shift, this let Barnum market food and toys as well as expand his audiences, who adored him for opening his fabulous shows to them. Immigrants and women found inspiration in death-defying feats performed by people like them. Like America itself, the American circus promises dreams, even if they turn out to be spun of cotton candy. This exhibit reminds us why we want to buy in.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.