The Art & Science of the Circus - Eva Varga

July 1, 2014

The circus is coming to town!  In the early 1900s, dozens of small circuses toured the Midwest and the Northeast, moving from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. With savvy business decisions and their growing popularity, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time.

Drawing attention to the attractions to come, amazing circus posters were an annual visual treat in small towns across America. Early poster designs featured multiple images with extensive text, but by the early 1900s, designs and marketing strategy had changed.  To quickly capture people’s imagination, designers used strikingly vivid images combined with hyperbolic text. The artwork depicting ballerinas on the high-wire, clowns riding on horseback, and the animals of the circus were beautifully colored and rendered by graphic artists employed by a small number of printing companies.

barnum baileyToday, in honor of Barnum & Bailey (who were both born in July), we can celebrate the exuberance of the circus ourselves with the help of the United States Postal Service, who have released beautiful Vintage Circus Posters Forever Stamps.

Commercial printers produced thousands of posters that were plastered onto the walls and fences throughout town, announcing the arrival of the circus.  In 1911, Ringling Bros. ordered 123,000 posters to advertise in the 143 town it was to visit. Some of these posters would cover an entire barn wall or roof, and all proclaimed in large and bold text the spectacular features that awaited the ticket holders.


PT Barnum Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891), the son of inn keeper, tailor and store-keeper, was an American showman and businessman remembered for promoting hoaxes and popular entertainers, most notably Swedish singer Jenny Lind.  Born in Bethel, Connecticut, he worked as a small business man in his early twenties.

In 1841, Barnum purchased a museum which became a popular showplace of oddities and human curiosities (including General Tom Thumb and the Fiji Mermaid).  Under his management, the museum expanded its collection of wax figures and opened America’s first aquarium. 

I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me. ~ P.T. Barnum

At his death, most critics had forgiven him his faults and he was praised for his philanthropy. Barnum was hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity.

JA BaileyJames Anthony Bailey (July 4, 1847 – April 11, 1906)  

Orphaned at the young age of eight, Bailey worked as a bellhop until he was discovered by the nephew of a circus pioneer, Frederic Augusta Bailey, who later adopted him. At 25, he teamed up with James E. Cooper to create the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860s; Barnum’s chief competitor due in part to Columbia, the first baby elephant ever born in the United States.

As colleagues and competitors, Barnum and Bailey eventually agreed to combine their shows and the duo established Barnum & Bailey’s Circus in 1881, billing it as The Greatest Show on Earth.  After Barnum’s death in 1891, Bailey purchased the circus from his widow and continued touring the eastern United States until he took his circus to Europe (touring December 1897 until 1902).

Bring it Home

Jump into the rings and explore the art and science of the circus with one or more of the activities for middle school and high school suggested here.

? With a sheet of the new Vintage Circus Posters postage stamps in hand, study the design and typography.

? Visit the USPS Stamps website to learn more about how vintage circus posters inspired the new stamps.

? Put together a philatelic exhibit to celebrate the circus, using the new Vintage Circus Posters as a starting point. Can you find other stamps and philatelic material to help tell your story? Learn how in my post, Stamp Collecting and Exhibiting.

? Research the history of the circus. What attractions drew the greatest crowds? How do the acts vary around the world? How has the circus evolved over time? What controversies have brought about these changes?

? Discover a modern version of the circus by watching Cirque du SoleilWorlds Away – a family-friendly fantasy that intertwines magnificent artistic and acrobatic performances from some of Cirque du Soleil’s inventive shows, including “Ka” and “O”; available to stream on Netflix. Better yet, if possible, see a live performance.

? Read Water for Elephants with your book club and discuss the lives of those who worked in the industry.

? Older students may be interested in exploring the controversy surrounding the care and training of the animals. Create posters or write letters to inform others and persuade them to stop using animals. For example, Animals Are Not Clowns.

Science Milestones

Next week, I will be honoring Roald Amundson.  You can also check out earlier posts in the Science Milestones series here.

The bloggers of the iHomeschool Network have teamed up to create fun and original unit studies on fascinating people who were born in July.

%d bloggers like this: