Material Culture


The circus wagons that remain bear testament to a remarkable period of U.S. History in a way that few things can.  The circus was a transient and fleeting monstrosity that by its very nature left very little evidence behind.  Part of its magic was its unique ability to shake a sleepy town to its feet, flood the senses with things unimaginable, and then disappear without a trace.  Upon emerging from the big top after the evening performance, a circus patron would often find themselves disoriented because the bustling midway that they had navigated that afternoon was already loaded onto a train and on its way to the next stand.

Though a great deal of material goods were produced both for and by the circus, very little of it was intended for longevity.  The acres of lithographs pasted onto every available surface to announce a show's arrival were soon pasted over by a competing circus, sometimes mere days later.  Film footage of a circus is virtually unheard-of.  Though the "flickers," or "movies," were largely written off by circus management as a passing fad, they quickly became a serious threat to his business.  Movie cameras were generally not allowed anywhere on a circus lot. 

The circus in many ways is a perfect reflection of the history of the United States.  The United States and its circus had been created simultaneously, and their fates were linked.  What was good for the country was good for the circus.  When the country suffered, so did circus.

Aside from circus programs, photos, and other ephemera, circus parade wagons are the only material evidence of the public spectacle of the circus and the overwhelming influence that it had on America and Americans 100 years ago.