History of the Circus: The Story Behind This Fun Summer Family Activity

History of the Circus: The Story Behind This Fun Summer Family Activity

Despite what many believe, the Ancient Roman circuses didn’t match up with your modern interpretation of the circus. Rather, they were more like racetracks for horse-drawn carriages.

It wasn’t until the late 1700’s when Philip Astley, an English cavalry rider, formed what we know today as the circus. Astley trained in equestrian stunts and feats at a London riding school where a circular area known as the circus would house horse riders practicing in full view of an audience.

And what an audience it was. The London circus proved so successful that Astley added other acts like jugglers, acrobats, and even clowns. Soon after in 1782, the first circus in Paris opened alongside competitors like Charles Hughes’s Royal Circus in London and John Rickettes’s circuses in the U.S. and Canada.

The Rise of North American Circuses

It became common for European circuses at the time to be set in permanent locations with major cities boasting large theaters for circus acts.

The U.S. in the 1800s, however, didn’t have enough large cities to sustain a similar system. The push westward to colonize the land meant people were on the move often. As a result, the birth of the traveling circus started up in North America.

Joshuah Brown in 1825 was the first to invent the circus tent we all know of today. Soon after was the introduction of well-known circus animals like elephants onto the scene.

Also, the concept of multiple rings in a single tent was started by Barnum and Coup’s circus, America’s leading circus at the time. The intention was to increase the audience capacity efficiently without taking the focus away from the acts.

It’s from these developments where we get our image of the classic American circus, a team of managers, performers, and animals traveling across the land to bring a fun summer family activity to circus-goers across the country.

How the Circus Spread Around the World

Don’t think circuses are purely an American or European phenomenon. French circus manager Louis Soullier brought the circus to China in 1854. When he came back to Europe later, he brought with him Chinese circus acts like plate-spinning and pole balancing.

The first Russian circus was brought over by another Frenchman, Jacques Tourniaire in 1816. The circus would continue with his sons as it toured throughout India and China. Russia soon became a Mecca for circuses with official schools intended to train actors.

Evolution of the Circus

It takes a long time to go from Philip Astley’s London circus to the fun summer family activity we know and love today. It all started mainly with equestrian acts, horse riding with occasional acrobats and juggling.

This system changed when the pantomime was added. A pantomime is a dramatic presentation during the circus, often a re-enactment of a famous battle.

Tight-rope walking and the trapeze were introduced later into the circus’s life. In 1859, French gymnast Jules Leotard became the first to soar on the flying trapeze while wearing the classic leotard uniform. This act stormed through Europe to the modern day.

New acts like these slowly replaced the traditional equestrians, and by the end of World War I, they were replaced entirely as the content of circuses changed in response to competition from other forms of media like movies; radio; and later, television.

Royal Canadian Circus Spectac! 2019 | BC – Alberta – Ontario

The modern circus isn’t slowing down its momentum and is still going strong today. This centuries-old tradition is a timeless classic; a must-see for any family.

To experience this fun summer family activity and a relic of the past yourself, purchase your tickets to the Royal Canadian Circus online today. We perform throughout B.C., Alberta and Ontario in cities such as Richmond, Surrey, Edmonton, Calgary, Mississauga, Scarborough, and Etobicoke.

• The circus we know today has undergone many changes since its introduction in London in the late 1700s.
• The circus has traveled across the world since then, adding new acts in addition to equestrian ones like the trapeze and the tight-rope walker.
• Experience a fun summer family activity this year with circus tickets from the Royal Canadian Circus.