Just imagine: sweltering sun, the scent of hay and cotton candy floating in the breeze along the raucous whoops of amusement from kids and adults alike. Garish-colored tents erect in a field, flaps held open by women in sequined costumes or men in floppy clowns’ suits as they guide patrons to and from the attractions within. The loud trumpet of an elephant from somewhere around the fringes of the freshly-erected site. Groups of children moving in swarms, fists clenched around warm coins, eager to explore the circus that’s just come to town.
That’s how I imagine it, at least, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. The long and fascinating thread of the circus in American culture is as inextricable from its DNA as apple pie or baseball. And why shouldn’t it be? Even George Washington frequented them, eager to watch equestrian shows. Circuses have inspired the American collective imagination for more than two centuries. Whether you’re looking for inspiration or just an amusing slice of culture, collecting circus books doesn’t have to break the bank.
Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901-1927 as seen by F.W. Glasier by Mark Sloane (2003). Full of gorgeous photography, definitely worth a look.
Hum Bug: The Art of P.T. Barnum by Neil Harris (1973). An in-depth look at one of the most notable names in the business.
The Circus Book: 1870s-1950s by Dominique Jando & Linda Granfield, edited by Noel Daniel (2010). Offers a fair look at both the lighter and darker aspects of circus history, with a ton of great photographs and artwork from original ephemera.
The Ringlings: Wizards of the Circus by Alvin F. Harlow (1951). A biography on another of the titans in the ring, the Ringling Brothers.
Here Come the Clowns: A Cavalcade of Comedy from Antiquity to the Present by Lowell Swortzell (1978). Delves into the history of clowns through history.
Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From ABA-Daba to the Zoppe-Zavatta Troupe by Tom Ogden (1993). If you want to see the culmination of an author who’s done their homework, definitely check this one out. Ogden goes past the famous troupes and celebrity clowns, highlighting the hard work of some seriously underrated performers.
Step Right Up: The Adventure of the Circus in America by William Lavauhn G. Hoh & William H. Rough (1990).
The One-Horse Show; The Life and Times of Dan Rice, Circus Jester and Philanthropist; A Chronicle of Early Circus Days by John C. Kunzog (1962). The tale of a man so famous his shows were more popular than Barnum’s, a brain so innovative his influence to modern Big-Top is still present to this day. Honorable mention goes to Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of by David Carlyon (2001).
First American Circus Ever by Irving Burnside (1981) What collection of books on circus history would be complete without the first circus to perform in America? This is a charming children’s book that offers a first peek into America’s first trip to the big top.
Clowns and Cannons: The American Circus During the Civil War by William L. Slout (2009). A touch dry for an afternoon read, but an excellent reference and starting point for digging deeper into the aspects that interest you.
The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern (2012). If you dig magical realism and gorgeous imagery, definitely give this one a try.
The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney (1935). Hoo boy. Hailed the father of the dark fantasy genre, Finney certainly went all-out. This one is a blast--complete with mermaids, medusas, unicorns, and pagan gods.
MirrorMask by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (2005). It’s billed as a Middle-Grade to YA, but let’s be real. Anything by Gaiman resists being only for one age group. The straight-to-DVD movie it’s based off of (yes, the book came after the movie) is a fun if weird little trip, if you’re into that sort of thing as well.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace (1998). Okay, so it’s not all about the circus, but this book hits all the right magical realism buttons in the best possible way.
A Final Word:
There are some other works about the circus worth checking out, but just like the circus itself, if it isn’t dazzling to the eye and uplifting to the heart, what’s the fun?
Hopefully the draw of the spectacle, the history of one of America’s first forms of popular entertainment, will be enough to entice you to start your very own circus collection. As you can see, you don’t have to shell out a whole lot of alfalfa just to get started.
The main image is credited to bookseller Singularity Rare & Fine, for their listing of "Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, February 2, 1856.".