- Circus Life: Performing and Laboring under America's Big Top Shows, 1830–1920by Micah D. Childress
Even though the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's "Greatest Show on Earth" offered its final performance on May 21, 2017, the circus retains a persistent appeal in the American consciousness. In October 2018, the PBS American Experienceseries aired Sharon Grimberg's four-hour documentary The Circus(2018). And billionaire Guy Laliberté's Cirque du Soleil, which continues the traditional circus's spectacle of death-defying human stunts, currently offers more than twenty different shows that also tour to more than a hundred cities worldwide. Micah D. Childress's Circus Life: Performing and Laboring under America's Big Top Shows, 1830–1920explores the circus during its heyday, adding significantly to the relatively few monographs on its [End Page 681]social history. Childress studies the circus not as entertainment but as a business. Focusing on how rival circus operations repeatedly merged into supersized, three-ring extravaganzas, he effectively articulates how the circus monopolies retained popular support at a time when antitrust sentiment dogged other conglomerates. Childress takes the reader behind the scenes, examining the working conditions for all ranks of circus employees within the larger context of America's rapid industrialization and the specialization of labor in the late nineteenth century.
Circus Lifeproves especially valuable for its analysis of fifty-eight circus route books, annual publications intended as accounts for those in the circus industry, not the general public. These route books are essentially journals of each seasonal tour, making note of attendance, profits, expenses, and employees and sometimes including descriptive events. In addition to the route books, Childress makes extensive use of primary materials at the Circus World museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, as well as numerous other print sources, all documented clearly in more than thirty-five pages of endnotes.
Childress examines a ninety-year period of the American circus, from 1830 to 1920, during which the attraction underwent its most dramatic transformations. The discussion is not purely chronological but rather is divided topically into five chapters. The first two chapters analyze the growth of the social respectability of the circus and the interactions between circus employees and the general public. Chapter 3 explores the sometimes tenuous relationship between circus owners and workers within the overall context of U.S. labor history. Chapter 4 narrows the focus to two populations treated with social inequity: black men and white women. Childress offers exceptional analysis of the lines of circus work available to African American men—primarily as manual laborers, as musicians in the circus band, and only occasionally as "kinkers," or performers (p. 97). White women, however, were hired almost exclusively as performers, and Childress documents how their behaviors were meticulously regulated by circus owners to maintain Victorian notions of feminine decorum, even as women's costumes and daring performances blew open such restrictions. Childress's focus in this chapter seems arbitrarily narrow, though, and one wishes for similar attention to other marginalized groups, such as working children or the disabled populations that came to be a mainstay of the circus sideshow. The book concludes with an excellent discussion of the business practices of circus owners, especially in relation to techniques employed by owners of other large industries.
Childress clearly explains how "circus day" in America, with its calliope-accompanied parade and erection of massive circus tents, was the most celebrated moment in nineteenth-century community life, even more so than Fourth of July celebrations (p. 6). The monograph includes nineteen pages of black-and-white photos and poster reprints. Overall, Circus Lifeprovides valuable insights into performance conditions and promotional and distribution practices that had a lasting impact on subsequent forms of the mass entertainment industry in America, including vaudeville and motion pictures. [End Page 682]