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Ringling Bros. Lion Tableau Wagon
Parades to celebrate the arrival of the circus to town in America featured highly decorated wagons carrying the circus band and artists along main thoroughfares to the big top circus tent, attracting patrons along the way. This “Lion Tableau” wagon was built by Sebastian Wagon Works of New York City in approximately 1880 for the Adam Forepaugh Circus.  A telescoping platform holding the figure of Saint George fighting a dragon was removed around 1889 and the lower portion was converted into a bandwagon. The wagon was purchased by the Ringling ...
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John Robinson's Circus
This 1929 photograph shows the interior of John Robinson's Circus during a spectacle, or “spec,” performance of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the American circus, the spec developed as a procession that took place around the hippodrome track inside the big top, or circus tent, featuring as many of the performers and animals as the circus director was able to costume. John Robinson’s Circus was especially known for its dazzling productions of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which offered a ...
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Back Door Scene at the American Circus
In the American circus, the area directly behind the circus tent or arena where performers prepared for and staged their entrances through the “back door” came to be known as the “backyard.” This glass-plate negative from 1928 reveals a typical backyard scene of an American circus just prior to performance of the spectacular production number. The spectacle, or “spec,” was a procession that took place around the hippodrome track inside the big top, or circus tent, featuring as many of the performers and animals as the circus director was able ...
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Circus Midway Scene
This 1935 photograph shows a crowd gathering on the midway of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, heading towards the entrance marquee tent. On the left is the painted banner line depicting freaks and attractions in the sideshow, an added fee attraction operating before the main show. On the right can be seen concession tents and ticket wagons. Visible behind the marquee entrance is the “free” menagerie tent consisting of the exhibition of exotic caged animals, elephants, and other lead stock. By the 1930s, the midway had become an important part of the ...
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Cole Bros. Circus
This 1935 image presents a scene from a typical moderate-sized 20th-century American circus. A crowd watches as baggage wagons from the Cole Bros. Circus are being pulled over flatcars. The railcars are marked Clyde Beatty and Allen King, who were two of the more notable animal trainers of the period. Behind the flatcars are stock cars that held elephants and baggage horses. This scene was repeated daily, morning and night, in railroad yards in communities across the United States. Cole Bros. Circus was established in 1884 by William Washington Cole ...
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Free Street Parade of the Sells-Floto Circus
This colorful lithograph advertises the upcoming street parade of the Sells-Floto Circus, promoting ticket sales to the local residents for the twice-a-day shows. The artwork captures the grandeur of the American circus parade in the 1920s. The parade is led by a rider wearing an 18th-century costume and carrying a circus banner. Behind the rider is a group of mounted horsemen, elephants in costumes worn in big production number during the show (“spec costuming”), a band, and a number of circus wagons. Several of the elephants and wagons promote the ...
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The Cookhouse Tent and Steam Wagon from Buffalo Bill's Wild West, 1913
Every aspect of circuses and shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was of interest to spectators in the towns and cities visited by these traveling spectacles. In this image dating from 1913, local townspeople gather to watch the cookhouse staff of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show prepare a meal outside the cookhouse tent. The steam wagon and cookhouse tent can be seen, along with the backs of the spectators, who include both men and women. The picture was taken by G. Herbert Whitney, an amateur photographer from ...
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Sells-Floto Circus, 1924
This photograph of 1924 shows a group of female circus performers climbing onto tableau wagon number 83 of the Sells-Floto Circus, possibly in preparation for a parade. A large draft horse is hitched to the wagon. A baggage wagon with the Sells-Floto name can be seen in the background. The Sells-Floto Circus was formed in the early 1900s from a combination of the Floto Dog & Pony Show and the Sells Brothers Circus. It toured the United States as an independent circus until 1921, when it was incorporated into the American ...
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Sells-Floto Circus, 1922
Elephants were not only an important part of the performance of a circus but were also very useful for providing heavy labor on the back lot. This image of 1922 shows an elephant of the Sells-Floto Circus pulling the canvas-covered cage wagon number 24 into position. Octagon cage wagon number 34 can be seen at right. The Sells-Floto Circus was formed in the early 1900s from a combination of the Floto Dog & Pony Show and the Sells Brothers Circus. It toured the United States as an independent circus until 1921 ...
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Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows
This colorful lithograph advertising the Ringling Bros. Circus was printed by the Strobridge Lithographing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, and New York, a significant producer of circus posters. The poster depicts the immense size of a large American circus in the early part of the 20th century and is an example of the colorful, eye-catching advertisements commonly used by circuses to attract crowds. The texts at the bottom proclaim “A Magic Moving City of Tents, The Home of Many Marvels, Largest Show Ever Perfected. A Really Great World’s Exposition,” and ...
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Erecting the Big Top, Cole Bros. Circus, 1937
This image from the 1930s shows the Cole Bros. Circus setting the side poles in preparation for erecting the big top tent, a scene that was common at every American circus at that time. In the background can be seen another tent, already set up. Alternating United States and Cole Bros. flags are flying at the top of the six center poles. Cole Bros. Circus was established in 1884 by William Washington Cole (1847–1915) as “W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows.” In the 1930s, when this photograph was ...
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Russell Bros. Circus, 1932
This photograph is an aerial view of the circus lot of the Russell Bros. Circus at Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1932. The availability of trucks following World War I led to a rapid growth of the trucking industry in the United States. Circuses quickly adapted to the new technology by creating "truck shows" or circuses that traveled overland via truck. Truck shows brought the circus to smaller towns across the country previously inaccessible by rail. This image shows a typical medium-sized truck show of the mid-20th century. The sideshow tent and ...
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Garland Entry, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1930
This photograph shows horses and riders of the "Fete of Garlands" or "Garland Entry" assembling in the back yard of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before going into the big top tent. Various tents and baggage wagons can be seen in the background. The image is a good example of the size and complexity of a “spec” performance in a large American circus. The spectacle, or “spec,” developed as a procession that took place around the hippodrome track inside the big top, or circus tent, featuring as many ...
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Behind the Scenes of Typical Truck Circus, Downie Bros. Circus, 1932
This behind-the-scenes image is typical of a “truck show” in the American circus. With the growth of the trucking industry in the United States after World War I, many small circuses could easily mount their wagons and equipment on the back of trucks and travel across the country, reaching countless smaller communities previously inaccessible by circuses operating strictly from railroads. In this image, three women rest under a fly tent attached to the back of a painted truck of the Downie Bros. Circus. The circus was owned by Andrew Downie ...
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