Under The Big Top: 36 Photos From The Early Days Of The Circus

Published July 18, 2017
Updated February 24, 2022

Check out these vintage circus photos from the early 20th century, when audiences crammed into tents to witness spectacles of danger.

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Under The Big Top: 36 Photos From The Early Days Of The Circus
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In May of 2017, The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus finished its final show, ending its run of 146 years. The self-proclaimed "greatest show on Earth" had seen declining ticket sales for years and the high operating costs of such an event made it no longer feasible, the outfit's CEO Kenneth Feld, told CNN.

In a way, it doesn't seem terribly surprising that a spectacle as grand as the circus wouldn't have a place in the 21st century. On the one hand, many people these days don't have to (or want to) leave their homes for entertainment. On the other, evolving views on animal welfare caused the circus to fall under intense pressure to end its use of elephants from animal rights activists.

The negative publicity, which rarely mentioned Barnum & Bailey's conservation efforts, did eventually lead to the circus taking its elephants out of the show. The move however, wasn't enough to save the show in the end.

The idea of the modern circus — a group of performers working together under a large "big top" tent — first came about in the mid-1700s. It wasn't until the mid to late 1800s, though, that the circus really started to spring up as a premier entertainment attraction in Europe, Russia, and the United States.

The life of a circus performer wasn't an easy one. Acrobats, clowns, and other showmen were often away from family most of the year and spent most of the day working to set up the tents and waiting around for the few hours that made up showtime.

For animals, especially prior to any sort of animal welfare laws, circus life wasn't particularly kind. Elephants, lions, tigers, and other large animals that need a substantial amount of space were almost always confined to small cages. Performance training often employed abuse, and nearly all circus animals frequently suffered from medical problems.

Of course, circuses still delight audiences with spectacles of danger and acrobatics throughout the world today. Cirque du Soleil is incredibly popular and regularly sells out shows. It's safe to assume, though, that the glory days of the vintage circus of old, the "Greatest Show on Earth," are gone.

After checking out these vintage circus photos, discover the sad true stories of some of the Ringling Brothers' most famous "freak show" members, and take a closer look at the literally murderous performer known as "Lobster Boy." Then, see the most surreal photos of Andre the Giant ever taken.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Stice, Joel. "Under The Big Top: 36 Photos From The Early Days Of The Circus." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 18, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-circus-photos. Accessed April 18, 2024.