William “Buffalo Bill” Cody

William Fredrick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was at different times a trapper, miner, Pony Express rider, scout, wagon master, stagecoach driver, legislator, and Civil War soldier. He earned his nickname, Buffalo Bill, because of his skill in supplying the Kansas Pacific Railroad with buffalo meat for its workers; in 18 months, he killed more than 4,000 buffalos. In 1883, he started the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Omaha, Nebraska, using cowboys and Native Americans to portray scenes from the West. The show recreated daring rescues, heroic battles, and Native American dances, fascinating audiences around the world. The show went to Europe and was wildly successful. It was the main American contribution to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration in 1887, and the queen herself attended a private command performance. Cody’s Wild West re-enactment was staged alongside the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was the talk of Chicago. This 1907 portrait of Cody is by Frederick W. Glasier (1866–1950), a photographer in Brockton, Massachusetts, who documented major outdoor shows and circuses. Many of his photographs appeared in the circus publications of the day.

Ringling Circus Winter Quarters, Sarasota, Florida

John Ringling (1866–1936), one of the seven Ringling brothers who dominated the development of the American circus in the late 19th and early 20th century, moved the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from its original quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota, Florida. Ringling’s vision, as recalled by Fred Bradna, equestrian director for the show, in his book The Big Top, was to “lay out the quarters like a zoo, and thousands of visitors will pay to see it. I’ll build an open-air arena exactly the size of Madison Square Garden, and on Sunday the acts can practice before an audience... Sarasota will become one of the most beautiful cities in Florida.” On Christmas Day 1927, the new winter quarters opened its doors to visitors. Families could see circus rehearsals as well as animals from all over the world at what was one of Florida’s top tourist attractions at that time. Sarasota became the center of the American circus, immortalized in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Academy Award-winning film The Greatest Show on Earth, and the home to many circus artists and families, including the Concellos, the Wallendas, and Emmett Kelly. This 1933 photograph depicts a small boy with a circus zebra at the Sarasota quarters.

Pay Off of Spec—the Good Old Times

In the 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 of the performers and animals as the circus director was able to costume. Traced back to the earliest circuses in America, the spec was originally a lavish performance of literary or historical tales intended to entertain and edify the audience. The costumes created for specs were often exotic, representing cultures from all corners of the globe. The costumes also could be whimsical, transforming reality, such as the design shown here for the pay-off float of the 1952 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The pay-off float was the grand finale of the parade, and in this spec, elephants were costumed as lobsters and swans. The costume design is by Miles White (1914–2000), who was known as one of the most talented designers of circus costumes and who also designed costumes for ballets, ice shows, movies, and Broadway shows, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel.

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 to costume. Traced back to the earliest circuses in America, the spec was originally a lavish performance of literary or historical tales intended to entertain and edify the audience. Shown here are caparisoned horses poised to enter the big top, followed by a costumed elephant. The stakes and guide ropes essential to keeping the tent erect are visible. The photograph is by Harry A. Atwell (1879–1957), an official photographer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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 American circus experience. Based in Peru, Indiana, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was at one time the second-largest circus in America, after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Its origins went back to famed animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913), whose Carl Hagenbeck Circus was bought by Benjamin Wallace in 1907. The circus ceased operations in 1938.

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 (1847–1915) as “W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows.” 1935 was the first season in which the legendary Beatty was associated with the Cole Bros. Circus. At that time, the circus was transported on 35 double-length railroad cars, and featured a giant street parade from the railroad yards to the circus grounds. Towns and cities visited by the Cole Bros. Circus in 1935 included Benton Harbor, Michigan; Marietta, Ohio; Falls City, Nebraska; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

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 Sells-Floto name. The circus parade was presented daily on the streets of the local hosting community before the first performance of the day and consisted of as much entertainment and grandeur as a circus could muster. 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 Circus Corporation. In September 1929 this corporation’s circuses were acquired by John Ringling, and by 1933 Sells-Floto ceased to exist.

Letter from Otto Ringling, October 26, 1907

Otto Ringling (1858–1911) was the son of a German immigrant who, with his brothers Albert, Alfred, Charles, John, August, and Henry, created the Ringling Bros. circus empire in the late 19th century. The brothers bought the competing Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907. They ran the circuses separately at first, but merged them in 1919 to create the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which came to be known as “the Greatest Show on Earth.” This letter, written by Otto to his brothers in October 1907, details how the assets of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, including the menagerie, stock animals, flat cars, and cages, could be split among the shows owned by the Ringling brothers. The letter provides an interesting glimpse of Otto’s perspective on the economic crisis facing America at the time and its implications for the circus business. The letter, along with many other treasures, was found in the fabled, abandoned winter quarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1932 by Sverre O. Braathen.

Circus Spectacle Float

This photograph depicts an elaborate spectacle float in the “backyard” of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in September 1922. The spectacle, or “spec,” often opened the show and 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 to costume. Traced back to the earliest circuses in America, the spec was originally a lavish performance of literary or historical tales intended to entertain and edify the audience. The photograph was taken by Charles Clarke (1878–1951), the catcher for the trapeze act The Clarkonians, who was also an amateur photographer who took hundreds of images documenting the behind-the-scenes activities of the circus.

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 Bros. Circus in 1890 and used as the lead bandwagon in its street parade, pulled by an eight-horse team. Often referred to as the Lion and Mirror Bandwagon, it was retired in 1915. It was stored at the old Ringling Winter Quarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin, until 1927 when it was purchased by George W. Christy who in turn sold it to the Cole Bros. Circus in 1935. The wagon was eventually donated to Circus World Museum at Baraboo in 1961 where it was restored and remains on display today.