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15 Vintage Photos from America’s First Circuses

Take a special, black-and-white look at the public and private life of circus people at the beginning of the 20th century.

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circus clown and performerCourtesy Debbie Koop/Reminisce

The circus in America

By the time circuses came to America in the 1800s they had already been very popular in Europe. The Circus of Pepin and Breschard, the very first circus in America, toured down the East coast from 1800 to 1820. It traveled from Montreal, Canada, down the east coast of the United States, and then to Havana, Cuba. In 1871, P.T. Barnum started P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum and it saw great success until his death in 1891. It then merged with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth toured Europe. Then in 1919, Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth was bought by the Ringling Bros. Circus and by the mid-1900s big top tent circus tours were a thing of the past and circuses began being held in permanent venues. Take a look at what some of the early circus performances in America looked like. P.T. Barnum’s circus started as a museum, but check out these other weird museums you never knew existed.

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Ringling Bros Circus Elephants Photo Gallery, New York, USAMatty Zimmerman/AP/Shutterstock

Need a lift?

1949: A circus performer gets some assistance from her trainee.

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Horse ActFrank Rust/Associated Newspapers/Shutterstock

Horsing around

1936: The Cumberlands Horse Act ride bareback on a troupe of trotting horses in a circus ring. These rare photos show what life was like in the 1950s.

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fire eating ladyShutterstock

Eating fire

1963: A woman demonstrates how to master the skill of fire-eating. These vintage Christmas photos will fill you with nostalgia.

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Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey CircusDave Pickoff/AP/Shutterstock

Practice makes perfect

1970: Acrobats perfect their routine before taking it to the big stage. 

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lionsAssociated Newspapers /Shutterstock

The lion lady

1938: Lion tamer Priscilla Kayes completes a performance with her temperamental partners.

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circus movie kathy grantDavid F Smith/AP/Shutterstock

Circus movies

1959: Kathy Grant poses with an elephant on the set of “The Big Circus” in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Check out these vintage photos of birthdays through the decades.

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Circus Chimp 1949, New York, USAEd Ford/AP/Shutterstock

Monkey business

1949: Animal trainer Beatrice Dante and her tight-rope-walking companion prepare to perform for the New York opening.

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rocket car circusGene Herrick/AP/Shutterstock

Somersault through the air

1952: “The Great Rasini and his Rocket Car,” hangs onto his car as it does a somersault in the air before landing on the canvas net. 

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AcrobatsAssociated Newspapers /Shutterstock

The trapeze swingers

1935: The Concellos Acrobats swing into action. Another 34 years later, the competition is upped with this death-defying circus act.

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Children Sneaking Under Circus TentGlasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Curiouser, curiouser

1936: Mysteries lie around every corner and tent bottom for these curious circus children in Roswell, New Mexico. This is what the Miss Universe pageant used to look like.

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growing up circus memoriesCourtesy Pat Grahn/Reminisce

Circus charmer

1956: Ella Mills was part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. She was advertised to fans as “586 Pounds of Feminine Charm.” She sewed all of her gowns herself and added extra fabric to them to make herself look larger.

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Circus Elephants On Parade 1948, New York, USAHarry Harris/AP/Shutterstock

From the ring to the streets

1948: A line of circus elephants romp down Second Avenue in New York City on their way to their annual appearance at Madison Square Garden. Not only can elephants learn and respond to trainers, find out 14 of their other amazing abilities.

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growing up circus memories-riding highCourtesy Pat Grahn/Reminisce

Riding high

1977: A kind elephant trainer allowed a young fan to take a ride before the show started. 

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The Knife Throwing Denvers - Uk Us Wild West ActHistoria/Shutterstock

Under the knife

1936: The ‘Knife Throwing Denvers’ showcase their terrifying confidence.

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Clown side show contestCourtesy Marcia Greenis/Reminisce

Clown contest

1981: Marcia Greenis performs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus after winning a clown competition in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Now, take a look at the most glamourous vintage photos from the 1950s.

Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Senior Production Editor at Trusted Media Brands. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. She works with our Production Coordinators to keep content moving and make sure that things are working well behind the scenes for all our digital sites. In her free time, she likes exploring the seacoast of Maine where she lives and works remotely full time and snuggling up on the couch with her corgi, Eggo, to watch HGTV or The Office.