America’s love affair with the circus has lasted for over 200 years. It outlasted the minstrel show, the medicine show and vaudeville. It glitters with spangles, smells of fresh sawdust and excited animals, tastes like peanuts and popcorn, and sounds like an old-time calliope.
Ernest Hemingway, a lifelong circus lover, once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the circus is good for you. It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”
The circus of the 1930s shared many similarities with the carnival of the same time period. The industry traveled by rail, and the parade to the fairgrounds was always a must-see event. Small circuses were only a few train cars in size while the Greatest Show on Earth consisted of 90 train cars in 1930. The animal menageries, exotically painted wagons, and colorful costumes made the free event one not to miss. The main challenge was to get the locals to open their wallets when money was tight.
The Depression era circus had many acts you can still see today, such as trapeze acts, the human cannonball, equestrians and clowns. Many other acts, like the Wild West Show, trained bears and elephant acts, have since disappeared. Animal acts were an integral part of the circus. Contemporary circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil, did not begin until the 1970s.
Outside of the circus tent there could be a sideshow featuring human marvels and oddities. There would also be an animal menagerie where people could visit the exotic animals when they were not performing. Many of these attractions were also very similar to ones found at the carnival.
Below is an amazing series photos of an elephant with its circus performers somewhere in the U.S in 1937.