November 19, 2018

Taking Sociology to the Circus

Colby (1)By Colby King

Did you know that before any U.S. city had a system of electric street lighting, Americans could see electric lighting at the circus? In 1878, James Bailey lit his circus with electricity, and as a result a large proportion of American saw electricity for the first time at the circus. Bailey even sold tickets for tours of the generator.

I learned this and a lot more from the recently aired documentary The Circus, from American Experience and PBS. The documentary illustrates the vibrant and problematic history of the circus, and underscored how the traveling circuses of the late 1800s and early 1900s were a quintessential part of U.S. society.

As someone who studies urban sociology, I was struck by the ways in which the circus functioned as a sort of traveling city. The film quotes one attendee describing the circus as:

a city that folds itself up like an umbrella. Quietly and swiftly every night it… [picks] up in its magician’s arms theatre, hotel, schoolroom, barracks, home, whisking them all miles away, and setting them down before sunrise in a new place.

Just as cities of the industrial era brought new patterns of social life, the circus brought culture and diversity, opportunities, and exploitation to the places it visited.

Circus as a moveable city

In many urban sociology courses, students read Georg Simmel’s essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In this essay, Simmel discusses how the density, division of labor, and differentiation of individual identity in the city lead to an “intensification of nervous stimulation” for city dwellers.

The circus provided exposure to some forms of nervous stimulation for attendees, many coming from agrarian communities. Circuses were filled with amazing feats and a variety of acts and entertainment. The idea of a “three ring circus” comes from the practice of having three rings with three different acts occurring simultaneously in front of the audience under the tent. The acts were designed to amaze the audience, testing the limits of human ability.

As historian Janet M. Davis explains in the film:

The act of dancing on a horse's back, the act of performing on a trapeze, on a rope, or doing a strength act, all of these forms of circus arts, they push the boundaries of human strength, of the limited nature of our humanness in ways that allow us to transcend it. For me, that is the essence of circus.

Circus performers, then, faced a pressure parallel to what Simmel saw workers in the city facing. Circus performers found ways to differentiate their abilities and surprise their audience. As Simmel wrote, workers in the city faced a necessity to specialize their products and functions to stay competitive.

Simmel also famously describes how the nervous stimulation of city life leads residents of the city to develop a blasé attitude, which helps them manage their daily urban lives without being overwhelmed by the chaos of the city. While folks who attended the circus may or may not have adopted a blasé attitude, the exposure to diversity and amazing feats surely influenced their perspectives about what is possible in human life. As Tim O’Brien and filmmaker Sharon Grimberg described in a recent episode of the Shaping Opinion Podcast, the circus was like a living internet: “For many decades before mass media, the circus brought to your town sights, sounds, smells, a complete sensory experience you might only get one day a year, if not once in a lifetime.”

Circus as Capital

Another perspective I considered in watching this film is the ways in which the titans of the circus industry, such as P.T. Barnum and James Bailey were capitalist barons alongside those more commonly associated with the Gilded Age. Viewers see an old Barnum circus poster declaring “Daily Expenses: $6,800 and Capital Invested: $3,000,000,” and we learn that when James Bailey passed away in 1906, his wife Ruth Luisa Bailey inherited his fortune, which is estimated to have been at least $5 million at the time.

As historian James W. Cook describes in the film:

The circus becomes a kind of celebration of American profit making, American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. And so, in many ways, it is the most visible form of corporate capitalism during the Gilded Age. Barnum is right up there with people like Andrew Carnegie in steel, John Rockefeller in oil, J.P. Morgan in banking. But his products and his business models are visible and spectacular and talked about in ways that the others are not.

Many of the famous people associated with the circus came from poor backgrounds. The Los Angeles Times review of the film describes how as a child, James Bailey faked his own death to escape an abusive sister. But by the end of their careers, the famous names behind these major circuses were managing large operations with hundreds of workers, investing substantial sums of money, and negotiating a series of mergers and acquisitions. It was a drive for profit that resulted in the merger of various circuses which eventually became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Each of the surnames in that eventual title for what was the world’s largest circus reflects a personal history and a movement of capital, highlighting how the circus really was big business.

Circus as opportunity and exploitation

Like cities of the industrial era, this film also illustrates how circuses presented a double-edge sword of opportunity and exploitation. The film addresses the trope of running away to the circus, which of course, is not dissimilar from the trope of moving to the city to “make it big.”

The film highlights how both push and pull factors encouraged people to join the circus. As Janet M. Davis explains, “We often like to think about running away with the circus as a kind of stereotype or a cliché. But it’s true. People ran away with the circus. And they did so because it offered opportunities for people who were perhaps outsiders in their own community.”

So, people might run away to the circus, both because of the opportunity to do unique work, but often also as a means of escaping life as a marginalized person in a small town. While the circus might offer opportunities for marginalized people, inequalities that existed in society were often reinforced in circus work, with workers struggling with inequalities in power and exploitation. As James W. Cook explains in the film, “There’s no question that there’s a large dimension of exploitation. There’s a large dimension of racialization running through. There’s a kind of exoticism.”

This exoticism is exemplified by the so-called “human freaks” that P.T. Barnum made a part of the entertainment of the circus. In the film we see a photo of Ann Leak, an armless circus performer who, as part of the sideshow tent, did various domestic tasks, like sewing or writing, with her feet . Another is the giraffe-necked woman, who Lisa Wade discussed here at Sociological Images.

This exoticism evolved from a sideshow entertainment to a larger part of the circus, which Barnum came to describe as the Ethnological Congress. With this, Barnum was attempting to illustrate the diversity of cultures and ethnicities in the world. As James W. Cook explains, though, the Ethnological Congress was “…quite literally a form of colonialism and imperialism because they are being acquired, transferred, shipped back to New York City through diplomatic agencies. “

The exploitation did not just in reinforce stigma, but also reinforced patterns of discrimination and structural inequalities that existed in society. As Fred Dahlinger Jr. explains in the film:

The discrimination that was present in America at that time against African-Americans was embraced by the circus. ... African-Americans did the most difficult work, the dirtiest work, the toughest work.

In describing the pay that workers in his circus would receive, Barnum is quoted as writing, “The remuneration of these people is usually minimal. I shall see that they are presented with fancy articles… and small allowances monthly.”

So, it’s no wonder that labor unrest is part of the story of the circus, just as it is part of the story of the U.S. at this time. By 1937, American Federation of Actors, which represented both performers and labor, had forced circus management to agree to a wage increase. But one circus manager, John Ringling North, refused to pay this increase. When the circus arrived in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a union stronghold at the time, the workers called a strike. The strike resulted in that tour of the circus ending four months earlier than planned. As Janet M. Davis explains “… the circus strike marked a departure from an older era in which circus workers were extraordinarily expendable… Working people across the country now demanded the kinds of protections that they deserved.”

If you’re interested in learning more, about the circus, the U.S. Census Bureau has a history page on P.T. Barnum and the circus with a lot of interesting facts and trivia related to the history of the circus, as well as information on many of the entertainers. There you can learn, for example, that a Swedish opera star who performed for the circus was listed as “The Greatest Singer in the World” according to her 1850 Census record. You can also learn about why today Gibsonton, Florida, is home to the largest organization for people in the outdoor amusement industry—the International Independent Showmen's Association.


Thank you for updating! Hope to see more updates from you, it's very interesting.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« What is a Ghetto? | Main | In Memoriam: Peter Kaufman »