Friday, April 22, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Step Right Up!

Photo by Nina Leen, March 1949 from LIFE Photo Archive
Last week I posted my review for Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants (Algonquin Books, 2006), and today the film version directed by Francis Lawrence was released (he also directed I am Legend and Constantine).  This got me thinking about circus history, which has been compared to a microcosm of the history of the United States, since the circus has been around almost from when this country was founded to the present day.  I'm not going to even try to summarize the extensive history of the circus, but I did find some trivia that caught my nostalgic eye and of course being the librarian that I am, I'm providing a list of books (both fiction and non-fiction) and a list of websites that I used to compile the trivia list.
  • The traveling circus on rails reached its peak in 1911, this was when a total of thirty two different shows were touring the country.
  • In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge and his wife attended a Ringling Bros. show upon a personal invitation from John Ringling, even though President Coolidge had remarked that their boys were not in, but that he would attend anyways.
  • Ringlingville was the original name of the Ringling Bros. Circus and it was founded in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1884.
  • One of the worst circus train wrecks occurred in 1918 when the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was derailed near Hammond, Indiana.  Since many of the performers that were killed could not be identified, some of their graves only have markers that say "Smiley", "Baldy", or "Unknown Female".  Their graves are part of a section in the cemetery called "Showman's Rest" and they feature elephant statues in typical mourning poses.
  • The use of a circus tent seems to have originated in 1825.
  • That famous circus theme song (c'mon, you know the one, "doo-doo-doo-roo-roo-roo-roo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo....) is actually a military march composed in 1897 by Czech composer Julius Fučík called Entrance of the Gladiators.
  • The flying trapeze was invented by Frenchman Jules Leotard (the leotard performers wear is named after him) when he connected some cords to a bar above his father's swimming pool.

Recommended Reading
The American Circus: An Illustrated History by John Culhane (Henry Holt and Co., 1991)
Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911-1936 by David Chapin Weeks (University Press of Florida, 1993)
The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud (Speck Press, 2009)
American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History's Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers by Marc Hartzman (Tarcher, 2005)

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney (Random House, 2005)
The Electric Michelangelo  by Sarah Hall (Harper Perennial, 2005, first published 2004)
The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (Henry Holt and Co., 2010)
The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (Harcourt, 2004)
A Son of the Circus by John Irving (Random House, 1994)
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (Penguin, 1986, first published 1984)


These elephants are remarkable, but I did watch the show wondering how well they were treated, and hoping that they were treated very well because they did some amazing tricks (at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Show, 2010)


  1. I have never been a big circus person, although I did enjoy Water for Elephants and plan on seeing the movie. The only thing I remember from the one time I attended the circus as a child is the smell of sawdust and animals.

  2. GREAT post! a freind of mine is totally into the circus scene and history of it!
    it's such a different life.. yet so simple!

    - Kristan of adelynSTONE on Etsy

  3. It's devastating how cruel they treated the animals. I recently, saw Water for Elephants and now I shudder whenever I'll hear 'August'. Judging by your review, I'm going to read Water for Elephants in the future.

  4. Hello! I really want to read Water For Elephants and hope to get to it this month. You know how TBR piles get. My name is Angie and I am the moderator of the YA Book Club on goodreads and thought I would stop by and say hello. I love that you posted about circus history. I love to go to a blog and learn something other then just a book review. My great great uncle was apart of Barnum and Baily's circus many many years ago. I wish there was some photos out there from his time in the circus.


    XOXO Angela's Anxious Life

  5. Thanks for the wonderful comments!! I think ever since I got dogs, I'm super sensitive to animals and how they are treated. When I was growing up and I visited the circus, I wasn't thinking about it, but now I can't help it. It is so interesting though- I especially liked how Sara Gruen incorporates pictures in the book, because it's true that we don't regularly see these types of photos around. I really, really need to get to the theater to watch the movie!! :)