The Historian: Step right up

Before electronics, “entertainment” meant live performance and the elephant of live performance was the circus. Early in the nineteenth century these early circuses, known as mud shows, crept along muddy country roads in trains of gaudily painted show wagons. These primitive circuses featured equestrian acts---trick riding---but also included elements of clowning, acrobatics, wild animal spectacle, and most importantly, music.

Moving an average of ten or fifteen miles at night, morning found them setting up their show under canvas at whatever little cross roads town or village they happened to be at. An advance man would have made arrangements for a field, bought whatever food and feed they might need (probably on credit), spread some complimentary tickets around with the town fathers to smooth the way, and generally got things ready. Towns like Pottstown, Boyertown or even Gilbertsville would have been stopping points. A trip around town with the band wagon served for advertising. So they wouldn’t skip out without paying their bills, the practice of the local constable or official was to remove one of the large nuts holding a wheel on the axle. When the bill was paid they got the nut back. To this day the circus term “making the nut” means covering daily operating expenses.

When railroads came along, rails carried ever larger circuses to venues like Pottstown’s Mill Park, but the mud shows continued to circulate in the back country well into the twentieth century.

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Today trucks carry the circuses, but the heyday of the big circus was from about 1870 to 1950 when special trains brought them to every major town along the rail lines. According to Pottstown resident and circus expert Fred Hoffman, the largest one to ever visit Pottstown was Hagenbeck Wallace Circus in 1934 with a circus parade that stretched for one mile down High Street. Other major shows were Cole Brothers in 1945 and Dailey Brothers in 1947. Oddly enough, Hoffman points out, aside from Ringling Brothers and Mills Brothers few of these “Brothers” circuses were owned by actual brothers. It was just a name. In fact one owner just walked around a cemetery looking at tombstones for names that sounded good. He came up with “Bradley and Benson.”

One major owner who used his actual name was George Washington Christy. Born in Pottstown on Washington’s birthday, he left Pottstown at an early age never to return. Christy built a one car show into a thirty car railroad show: “Christy Brothers Circus.” Pottstown would have had one major circus like Christy Brothers per season.

A week or ten days ahead of the arrival of the circus train an advance car started the advertising. That crew of men was out by five a.m., some on foot, some hiring teams, to blanket about a ten mile radius with circus posters and store front advertising as well as newspaper advertising and articles. The posters were masterpieces of the lithographers’ art. Gorgeous and gaudy they whetted the appetite for the spectacle to come. Posters came in various sizes by sheets. Three sheets would perfectly cover two sides of an outhouse. Twenty four sheets would cover the side of a barn. If unblemished, these posters are much prized by collectors today. Also, special trains called excursion trains would be arranged for circus day. These operated like our hub and spoke system bringing outlying passengers in from say Boyertown or Birdsboro.

Unloading circus trains was an art. The heavy circus wagons were carried on extra long flat cars which were then bridged at the ends. Working on the ground beside the flat cars, trained teams of percheron horses were hitched to the corners of the wagons and they pulled them to the end flat car where ramps led to the ground. Once off the train, a team for that specific wagon was waiting with its driver to pull it to its exact location. The wagon may have carried seats or canvas or a kitchen or a hippopotamus. The wagons rolled in a grand parade from the rail yard, through town, to the circus ground.

The circus was set up in just hours by hundreds of laborers divided into specialized crews. One crew, for example, laced sections of canvas together on the ground to make the tents. This sea of canvas was tied to a central bale ring circling the fifty-five foot high center pole. Ropes tied to that bale ring were threaded through pulleys at the top of the center pole and harnessed to elephants which pulled the big top into place. Using sixteen pound sledge hammers, six man stake crews drove hundreds of stakes deep into the earth so the tent side ropes could be pulled tight and the tent took shape. How to get the stakes out after the show? An elephant had a broad harness over her neck with a chain at the bottom. She leaned her head down, the chain was wrapped around the stake, and then she raised her head. Out came the stake.

Fred Hoffman notes that there was a lot of money to be made in old time circuses. The ticket price of fifty cents was just the beginning. As the crowd gathered in the midway waiting for the main show to start, the side show barkers would start their “step-right-up” ballyhoo tempting people to buy a “ten in one” ticket: ten small shows for the price of one. Inside the mid-way were menageries, freak shows (under the rubric of “education”), fire eaters, glass eaters, snake charmers, midget jugglers, giants, and sometimes even gambling to which the authorities looked the other way; (the police department having received a bundle of complimentary tickets). Each of these side show performers had a pitch-item: a post card, a ring from the giant that you could pass a half dollar through and so on. Little things made money. Midway ticket counters were about neck height so people, in the crush of the crowd, tended to forget to pick up their change which was out of sight and then deftly swept off into a box behind the counter. Along the midway, foods and trinkets of all kinds were offered for sale. Once inside the tent, the good seats called “reserved seats” cost extra; at some point sales people circulated through the crowd, which may have numbered 10,000, selling tickets to the After Show, usually a wild-west type show. And so on. The take for a big circus like Ringling Brothers could be in excess of $50,000 a day. But a stretch of cold rainy weather could be equally disastrous.

Usually there were two shows: matinee and early evening. During the shows the crews got a few hours of sleep after which they took the whole thing down, loaded the wagons, and pulled them back on the train in reverse order. In the twentieth century generators made tear-down lights possible so loading could be done at night. The men got a few hours of sleep on the train, but at dawn they were in the next town doing it all over again. In a big city they may have remained set up for several days but usually the circus was in town for just one day.

According to an article by W. Edmunds Claussen, on May 9, 1879, when the Cooper, Bailey & Company’s Big show was set up on the lot near Walnut and Washington Streets, the show’s ten elephants were marched down Washington street to the river. The Pottstown newspaper at the time noted: “In they plunged with all the zest of schoolboys, and such a scene of ponderous gamboling was surely never seen in the Schuylkill….The big elephants rolled themselves over coming up a mountain of glistening wet flesh and spouting great streams through their trunks…A sight worth witnessing surely.”