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First Modern Circus

The first modern circus was unveiled January 9, 1768 in London by Philip Astley. Astley was a former cavalry officer who performed himself in the circus that day, doing horse tricks. Other acts in the shows included dancing, fiddle playing, juggling, and acrobatics. Other instruments were added later, as were clown tricks. About the only animal attractions were horse tricks performed by Astley and others. The circus was not an immediate success but more of a curiosity. Nonetheless, word of mouth spread and people began to want more showings of Astley's circus.

In 1770, he built a building and named it Astley's Amphitheatre. It was basically a roof and two walls surrounding the "ring" in which the circus performed. Crowds grew, and so did his success.

He traveled to Paris in 1772 for a showing and followed that up with a series of circus showings across Europe. The circus idea traveled to Russia in 1793, for a performance at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Circuses in the United States began as early as 1792, with an English horseman named John Bill Ricketts putting on a show in Philadephia and then touring to New York City and Boston. Among the audience members was President George Washington, who sold the circus a horse in 1797. The Ricketts circus remained in business for a decade or so, eventually giving way to other circuses that toured the expanding country.

Nearly a hundred years later, Americans P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey began the famous "Barnum and Bailey Circus," which had so many elements that it required three rings. The Ringling Brothers began their circus soon after and eventually became so popular that they were able to buy Barnum and Bailey. The resulting Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus survives to this day.

Graphics courtesy of ArtToday

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