Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010
September 21, 2012 - February 3, 2013
Curated by Matthew Wittmann.
"A compelling look at how New York City influenced and inspired this iconic form of American popular entertainment."
From September 21, 2012, to February 3, 2013, the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC) will present Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010, an exhibition that uses New York City as a lens through which to explore the extraordinary development and spectacular pageantry of the American circus. Through a wide variety of ephemera, images, and artifacts, the exhibition documents the history of the circus in the city, from the seminal equestrian displays of the late eighteenth century through the iconic late nineteenth-century American railroad circus to the Big Apple Circus of today. From humble beginnings, the circus grew into the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. By the turn of the twentieth century, New York City was its most important market and the place where cutting-edge circus performances and exhibitions were introduced to the nation.
The exhibition begins by looking at how the advent and growth of the American circus paralleled New York City’s rise as a cultural capital during the nineteenth century. This story began in the fall of 1793, when John Bill Ricketts, a Scotsman, opened the first circus on Greenwich Street with performances that primarily consisted of displays of equestrian skill. In the decades that followed, a variety of transitory circuses and menageries sprang up to entertain the burgeoning population. By mid-century, more permanent circus venues featuring a mix of equestrian, animal, and acrobatic acts were established. Although a succession of influential impresarios, such as Dan Rice and Lewis B. Lent, were transforming the circus business in the United States, no figure was more important to the New York’s emerging popular entertainment industry than Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891). Loans from the Barnum Museum illustrate the breadth of his endeavors, from his early years with Barnum’s American Museum to his triumphant entry into the circus business in the early 1870s. Advertising and artifacts from this era demonstrate how the American circus evolved from modest beginnings into the celebrated and massive railroad circuses of the late nineteenth century and reveal the signature role that New York City played in this process.
“A treasure…This book brings to life the days when the circus was at the heart of an emerging American popular culture, rather than a mere sideshow, and restores the circus to its rightful place as the progenitor of the nation’s entire entertainment industry.”—Beyond Chron
At the turn of the 20th century, the circus was the most popular form of American entertainment, and New York City was the hub of circus-related activity. Featuring superb archival photography, this book documents a wide variety of ephemera, images, and artifacts relating to the history of the circus in the city, from the seminal equestrian displays of the 18th century to the iconic railroad circuses of the late 19th century. Matthew Wittmann offers a thorough history of the circus in New York City, including stories of P. T. Barnum's triumphant entry into the circus business, the famous dwarf General Tom Thumb, and Jumbo, the African elephant that touched off a craze known as "Jumbomania." The histories of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the WPA Circus of the Great Depression, and the Big Apple Circus are testaments to the enduring popularity of this American pastime.
Matthew Whittmann is a curatorial fellow at the Bard Graduate Center.
“I Am Coming”
Framed poster with woodcut illustrations, printed in two colors
Inset portrait of P. T. Barnum engraved by Mayes; border by Roylance & Purcell, New York
Diam. 36 in. (91.5 cm)
Hertzberg Circus Collection of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
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