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Step 1: Artifact analysis

circus

  1. Give a physical description of the artifact. What does it appear to be made of?
  2. Describe its special qualities: shape, color, size, movable parts. What is printed on it?
  3. Uses of the artifact:
    • What might it have been used for?
    • Who might have used it?
    • Where might it have been used?
    • When might it have been used?
    • What does the artifact tell us…
      • about the technology of the time in which it was made and used?
      • about the life and times of the people who made it and used it?
    • What approximate year would you date this artifact to?
    • Detail the characteristics of the people captured in this artifact.
    • How is the technology different today?
    • Sketch the artifact.

Step 2: Description

Read the description of the artifact and its context:

Forepaugh Circus Parade
Photograph
Montpelier, Vermont
July 27, 1883

The Adam Forepaugh Circus was one of the most popular touring attractions of the Gilded Age. Forepaugh got into the circus business as the Civil War concluded in 1865, and his shows continued in various formats nearly until the turn of the century. The Forepaugh Circus was considered to be the most challenging competition for P.T. Barnum at the time.

Forepaugh went all out with his shows, experimenting with a wide variety of extreme acts and offering audiences rare opportunities to see exotic animals.

The Forepaugh Circus regularly toured the United States via railroad, and although Vermont was not an annual stop, the extravaganza made it to the Green Mt. state often enough that it was well known. It definitely had ‘name recognition’ for Vermonters of the Gilded Age. In the summer of 1883, Forepaugh created great anticipation by announcing a seven-city tour of the state between July 25 and August 1.

The arrival of the Forepaugh Circus in any town was a big deal. Forepaugh himself claimed that “I now find it necessary to employ three trains of cars for my show. No other show visiting Vermont this year uses more than one.” [VHS Broadside, B Circus 1883] Rural residents could easily identify circus cars as they rode the rails, and track their travels towards scheduled performances. Upon arrival at any destination, circus staff would unload the trains, and embark upon a grand parade through town to the performance site. This spectacle would literally stop a Gilded Age community dead in its tracks, as virtually the entire populace would abandon regular activities to witness the event.

This photograph, taken in Montpelier, vividly illustrates the unique character of the circus parade, and its phenomenal popularity. An elaborate coach, a dozen or so elephants, and camels trek up the dusty street, with the locals packing the sidewalks to gape at the sight. Of course, this free event served as outstanding publicity, advertising the show to come under the big-top. Vermonters flocked to these performances — 10,000 people attended Forepaugh’s Circus in Burlington the previous day.

Step 3: Consider the artifact in its historical context

The Circus in the context of the Gilded Age

Considering both the artifact and your knowledge of the time period, answer the following questions:

Step 4: Final narrative/commentary

The circus was one of the cultural rages of the Gilded Age, both in Vermont and across the United States. As Americans began to discover the appeal of ‘affordable luxuries,’ even frugal Vermonters started to recognize that spending a few cents on non-essentials was unlikely to bankrupt the family budget. County fairs, ballgames, touring lectures, theatrical performances, and other cultural attractions emerged to provide those hard-working folks of the time with an array of potential diversions from their daily grind. The circus was among the most popular of these leisure-time opportunities. With the Forepaugh circus charging admission of 50¢ for adults, and 25¢ for children, most Vermonters felt that they could afford to attend. The Burlington Free Press from July 26, 1883 even went so far as to predict, in anticipation of the Forepaugh show, that “today will be a sort of general holiday. All the mills will shut down as all hands take in the circus.” [Patten and Rosenberg, page 2]

This artifact nicely illustrates how the Gilded Age circus was difficult to ignore. Even today, who wouldn’t be shocked into watching a herd of elephants parading down a Vermont street? Especially in an age predating television, movies, and computer images, this was a rare chance to witness the weird, exotic, and bizarre in person. Seeing a photograph or illustration of an elephant was one thing — actually seeing one in the flesh was another spectacle. In addition, the circus parade itself also offered the potential for exceptional experiences — the Rutland Herald of July 26, 1883 reported that “there were two lively runaways yesterday morning…one of the elephants in the procession ran against a street gas lamp and somewhat demoralized it.” [Patten and Rosenberg, Attachment 3] Such adventures must have been common. The most famous of Gilded Age elephants, P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo, met his tragic end when he wandered into the path of a speeding freight train in an Ontario railway yard in 1885.

The photograph reveals that, despite the obvious heat of a July day (note the several umbrellas raised in an attempt to block out the sun), Montpelier-area residents flocked to the Forepaugh show’s parade in their best Sunday clothes to take in the sights.

This practically universal appeal of the circus is perhaps its most intriguing characteristic. In the late nineteenth century, the circus gathered audiences comprised of people from all walks of life. Young and old, rich and poor, immigrant and native, male and female, the circus proved to be the rare cultural attraction uniting society at the time — a phenomenon that continues to a lesser extent into the 21st century. Indeed, historians have noted that the 19th century circus “was a great equalizer for people of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of education. From mill workers and merchants to students and clerks, the entire population thronged the streets on circus day.” [Patten and Rosenberg, page 3] Moreover, the circus also served to bring rural residents into town to sit beside their urban neighbors, as special excursion trains and even ferryboats shuttled spectators to performances. The July 26, 1883 Free Press described the transportation systems of Burlington as “crowded to overflowing” on circus day. [Patten and Rosenberg, page 2] Uphillers and downhillers, all Vermonters, and Americans, shared in the circus experience, a rarity during an era when United States society was being polarized along so many lines.

As for the Forepaugh Circus in particular, the performance itself was quite a production. The Rutland Herald informed its readers that “Forepaugh claims to have spent $2,000,000 in capturing, importing, and purchasing animals” for his 1883 show. [Patten and Rosenberg, page 5] The Burlington Free Press observed that the circus featured three rings, 40 chariots, 1000 animals overall, 25 elephants, 3 brass bands, guards of the Great Khan, an Egyptian pageant, and cotton field Negroes. The paper editorialized that the show proved to be “probably the honestest circus that ever visited this city. It gave all it advertised to give, and gave it well.” [Patten and Rosenberg, pages 3 and 4]

Although the show may have awed Gilded Age Vermonters, other aspects of Forepaugh’s operation gave them cause for concern. Even while promoting the performance, the Free Press warned readers prior to the show to “beware of thieves and pickpockets.” In fact, circus historians have noted that “it was common practice for circuses to hire teams or professional pickpockets to work the crowds, and Forepaugh was known as one of the great grifters of circus history.” Forepaugh also regularly had employees outside the big-top operating unsavory moneymaking activities such as shell games, card tricks, and other con schemes to bilk audiences beyond the price of admission. [Patten and Rosenberg, page 8]

Forepaugh exited the circus business in 1889, selling his circus act to James Bailey and James Cooper, and his railway cars to the Ringling Brothers.

Vermonters continued to enthusiastically support other circuses for years thereafter.

Sources

Angela Patten and Gail Rosenberg, Hippodromes, Hyperbole, and Hullabaloo: 19th Century Circuses in Vermont. [Self-published pamphlet, available at VHS 791.3 p 277h]

http://www.circusinamerica.org/public/corporate_bodies/public_show/4

http://www.circushistory.org/History/Bios.htm#F

Circus Fans Association of America

Lesson plan and commentary by

George Moltz
Rochester High School
Rochester, Vermont