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Cowboys and Indians: Western-themed shows staged sharpshooting battles and rodeo events. In 1935, American movie star Tim McCoy left Hollywood to join the circus with his own Wild West show.

The Traveling Circus: An American Spectacle in Photographs

By Rasheeda Smith
August 2017 • American History Magazine

Maybe e.e. cummings was right…

Since the 1700s, traveling circuses have transported Americans with magic, glamour, and popcorn. Troupes of skilled performers, sideshow characters, costumed actors, and exotic animals present jaw-dropping extravaganzas under ever larger tents. These spectacles of the incredible, the improbable, and the impossible have inspired onlookers of all ages—one, the poet e.e. cummings, declared, “Damn everything but the circus!”—to wish to run away with the nearest roadshow. Photographer Edward J. Kelty did exactly that. Opening his first studio in 1922 in Manhattan, Kelty initially made his living taking pictures of guests at banquets. His skill with perfectly posing large groups put him in demand at other social events. For himself, Kelty haunted Coney Island sideshows, photographing their denizens—an avocation that led to a job with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey Circus as official photographer. Kelty devoted two decades to chronicling on film circus folk and their animal costars rolling into towns and cities across the country and putting on a show. At the end of May 2017, the Greatest Show on Earth takes a final curtain call, permanently dimming the lights on a 147-year run. Edward Kelty suddenly disappeared shortly after the Depression, leaving few personal traces. But his vast, indelible body of work immortalizes the traveling American spectacle, keeping alive the memory of what it felt like every time the circus came to town.

 

Bizarre Wonders: Freak shows traded on Otherness, mostly in the form of disabilities or deformities. Some shocking attractions were real, others tricks and disguises. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)
Bizarre Wonders: Freak shows traded on Otherness, mostly in the form of disabilities or deformities. Some shocking attractions were real, others tricks and disguises. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)


Down the Hatch: “Mighty Ajax” awed crowds by swallowing swords that he first plunged into flames. Would-be emulators died attempting his act. An x-ray reveals Ajax’s talent. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)
Down the Hatch: “Mighty Ajax” awed crowds by swallowing swords that he first plunged into flames. Would-be emulators died attempting his act. An x-ray reveals Ajax’s talent. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)


On the High Wire: Tightrope walkers defied gravity in stunts uncorked far overhead. Umbrellas and poles, used for balance, were also part of the act. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)
On the High Wire: Tightrope walkers defied gravity in stunts uncorked far overhead. Umbrellas and poles, used for balance, were also part of the act. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)


All That Brass: Big bands paced performances, maintained the crowd’s enthusiasm between acts, and added a bravura musical component to the evening. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)
All That Brass: Big bands paced performances, maintained the crowd’s enthusiasm between acts, and added a bravura musical component to the evening. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)


Small Stature, Big Presence: In a less enlightened time, all it took to get audiences rollicking was to send in the little people. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)
Small Stature, Big Presence: In a less enlightened time, all it took to get audiences rollicking was to send in the little people. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)


Clownin’ Around: Jovial performers in white face delivered slapstick comedy with flair and highly trained precision. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)
Clownin’ Around: Jovial performers in white face delivered slapstick comedy with flair and highly trained precision. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)


Tricksters: Clown costumes often hid gimmicks that performers devised to surprise and delight startled onlookers. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)
Tricksters: Clown costumes often hid gimmicks that performers devised to surprise and delight startled onlookers. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)


Move In, Move Out: The circus—Latin for ring—evolved into a crisply choreographed transport system. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)
Move In, Move Out: The circus—Latin for ring—evolved into a crisply choreographed transport system. (Courtesy of Will Kelty)

 

 

This story is from our upcoming April 2018 issue of American History magazine. For more great stories, subscribe here.

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