On this day, Englishman Philip Astley stages the first modern circus in London.
Trick riders, acrobats, clowns, trained animals, and other familiar components of the circus have existed throughout recorded history, but it was not until the late 18th century that the modern spectacle of the circus was born. Astley, a former cavalry sergeant major, found that if he galloped in a tight circle, centrifugal force allowed him to perform seemingly impossible feats on a horse’s back. He drew up a ring and on January 9, 1768, invited the public to see him wave his sword in the air while he rode with one foot on the saddle and one on the horse’s head.
Astley’s trick riding received such a favorable response that he soon hired other equestrians, a clown, and musicians and in 1770 built a roof over his ring and called the structure Astley’s Amphitheatre. In 1772, Astley went to Versailles to perform his “daring feats of horsemanship” before King Louis XV, and he found France ripe for a permanent show of its own, which he founded in 1782. Also in 1782, a competitor in London set up shop just down the road from Astley’s Amphitheatre, calling his show the “Royal Circus,” after the Roman name for the circular theaters where chariot races were held. In the 19th century, the term “circus” was adopted as a generic name for this new form of entertainment. Astley, who lived until 1814, eventually established 18 other circuses in cities across Europe.
In 1792, English equestrian John Bill Ricketts opened the first American circus in Philadelphia and later opened others in New York City and Boston. President George Washington reportedly attended a Ricketts circus and sold the company a horse. Smaller traveling circuses arose in Europe in the early 19th century, visiting towns and cities that lacked elaborate permanent shows. Larger traveling tent shows evolved in the 1820s. In 1859, the Cirque Napoleon in Paris offered the first “flying trapeze” act, which remains a popular component of the modern circus.
In 1871, William Cameron Coup and showman P.T. Barnum opened an enormous circus in Brooklyn that they dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Ten years later, Barnum went into business with James Anthony Bailey; the “Barnum and Bailey” circuses were so large they required simultaneous performances in three rings.
In 1884, the five Ringling brothers staged their first circus, and they soon were buying out other circus companies, including Barnum and Bailey, which they purchased in 1907. During the next three decades, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows grew into the largest touring organization in the world, with hundreds of tents and an army of workers and performers. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey downsized after World War II but continues to tour today. Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, which gave an artistic sensibility to its acrobatic acts while shunning the use of animals, was an innovative circus development of the late 20th century.