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Circus: Topics in Chronicling America

A guide for researching the topic of "early circuses" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.


True American (New Orleans, LA), March 27, 1837, Morning, Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Step right up! Circuses appear across America, dazzling audiences with equestrian feats, exotic animals, and daring trapeze stunts. Every show is more incredible than the last, and people of all ages eagerly anticipate their town’s Circus Day. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.


1793 - 1800 John Bill Ricketts produces some of the first modern American circuses, and President George Washington is amongst the fans.
November 18, 1825 In Wilmington, Delaware, Joshua Purdy Brown puts up the first circus tent, or “pavilion,” an innovation that would pave the way for traveling shows and multi-city tours.
March 28, 1881 P.T. Barnum and James Bailey combine their shows and open a 3-ring circus for the first time in Madison Square Garden.
1882 - 1885 Jumbo, beloved circus elephant, draws large crowds to P.T. Barnum’s circus until his sudden death on September 15, 1885.
June 22, 1918 The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train is involved in one of the deadliest railroad wrecks in history.
March 29, 1919 The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey merge, opening a super-circus that would become known worldwide for the next several decades.