Although I found the circus frightening as a child, and I still don’t like huge crowds and big spectacles, I just loved the Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010 exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center.
Animal menageries have been part of the circus from its colonial beginnings. In 1728, you could go to the fair and see a lion! In 1796, the first elephants came to New York.
But the circus as we know it started as equestrian exhibits, with daredevil riding–the first in New York was in 1793. The banners demonstrate amazing feats, indeed.
By the 1820s, New York had several semi-permanent circuses, as well as touring shows. Pantomime, acrobatics, and melodramas were added to the animal events.
This picture doesn’t provide any sense of scale, but to give you a sense, the boots are doll-sized.
The exhibit also had daguerreotypes of Tom Thumb dressed as the various characters he made famous.
Barnum was the ultimate marketer, adding posters and parades, as well as the “freak show” concept, turning the circus into spectacle. By the time the Hippodrome was built in 1853 (and oh, how even I wish I could have seen that place, located where quiet Madison Square is now), the circus was the most popular form of entertainment in New York City.
You know the phrase ‘three-ring-circus’? That came about after the merger of Barnum with Bailey, the two largest spectacle managers. Bailey was a business man, while Barnum was the showman. Bailey added electric lighting to the circus, so that three spectacles, or rings, could be staged simultaneously.
The exhibit featured charming paintings by Milton Avery (Three Ring Circus) and Walt Kuhn (no, not one of his scary clowns, but The Lancer), both from 1939. But my favorite was the work by A. Logan from 1874, on loan from the Whitney Collection.
The slide show below features toys, games, costumes, and even a wagon wheel, all part of the exhibit. The exhibit is just the right size for a little mental health break–to my taste, much easier to take in and be delighted by than the real thing.