11 Vintage Circus Photos From When The Big Top Was All The Rage

by Ileana Paules-Bronet
Ileana is the Editor of Original Content at LittleThings. She grew up in upstate New York and Oregon and now lives in Queens, NY. Ileana graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in sociology. After graduating, she attended the Columbia Publishing Course in New York City, then worked as in marketing at Oxford University Press. Since transitioning to editorial, she has written for sites like BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Unwritten. She has also worked for local newspapers and magazines in upstate New York. In her free time, you can find Ileana watching Law and Order: SVU, eating ice cream, and spending time with her dog.

On January 14, 2017, Ringling Bros. announced they will be closing this May.

After 146 years, “the Greatest Show on Earth” is closing its doors.

The circus, once an American tradition, has greatly changed in modern times, causing ticket sales to decline and operating costs to skyrocket.

Modern circuses are much more focused on human endeavors of strength, flexibility, and fearlessness, and the animal-based circuses of the past are no more.

Some people are saying “good riddance” about the closing of the biggest animal-based circus, while others feel nostalgic for the past.

In their heyday, circuses were a cultural phenomenon unlike any other.

They rolled in on trains, set up their enormous tents and menageries, and captured the attention of entire cities. While nobody can argue that circuses didn’t have their enormous problems, they were truly iconic.

For over 150 years, circuses have captured the attention of millions. Read on for some of the most amazing vintage pictures of circuses of the past and make sure to SHARE these incredible photos with your friends!

Thumbnail Sources: Wikimedia / Flickr

1. The Circus Midway

Overhead view of circus crowd

The midway was a gathering area for audience members to mill about before the show started. This is where the entrances to the main tent and the sideshow were.

2. The Knife Thrower

Knife thrower and assistant

Knife throwing was always a big attraction at circuses, and still appears on “Got Talent” shows all over the world.

3. The Performer And Her Horses

Circus performer and horses

One of the biggest attractions of the first circuses were horse-based performances. According to Circopedia, many acrobats would even perform on horseback. Fortunately, rules surrounding the treatment and care of these animals are much more strict nowadays.

4. The Contortionist

Contortionist bent backwards in striped suit

Contortionists are still popular circus performers, but according to the Circus Historical Society, before sports and talent performances were televised, circuses were the best place to see contortion acts.

5. The Clowns

Two clowns

Clowns, most often known for their pantomiming, have always been part of circuses. They often act as the hosts of the show, making audiences laugh between acts.

6. The Headless Performer

Headless man holding head in arm

Trick costumes and illusions used to be a huge part of the magic of circus acts.

7. The Acrobats Rehearsing

Acrobats in formation

Acrobatics have always been a consistent part of circus shows — but now, acrobats play an even bigger role than in the past, replacing animal acts with human tricks and stunts.

8. The Acrobat Relaxing

Acrobat posing with eclair

While many current performers dedicate their entire lives to the circus, it’s not as common for them to live with the circuses anymore.

History Magazine explains that when circuses traveled by train, the performers lived nomadic lifestyles — sleeping, eating, traveling, and living with the other performers, animal trainers, and circus managers.

9. The Backstage

Circus backstage

Behind the main tent is where many of the performers spent time before they went on stage. This is also where the animals were kept between being in their menagerie cages and entering the main tent.

10. The Hoop Performer

Woman with six hula hoops

Hoop performers are usually seen at music festivals and farmers markets now, but they can also be found on circus stages everywhere — both currently and in the past.

11. The Circus Train Cars

Back of circus train cars

For many people back in the day, seeing these trains roll into town was a thrilling moment.

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