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The Circus in the 1930s

By the time Irvin would have seen a circus, the golden age (1870-1920) would have already passed. The merging of the Barnum and Bailey Circus with the Ringling Brothers Circus created the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. Their circus “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1919 is considered the pinnacle of the Golden Age. The introduction of radio broadcasting in 1920 resulted in a new age: the twilight of the American Circus.

View this video with a transcript: “Circus Day In Our Town. By Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, 1949” (Closed captions available in EN and FR)

Black and white photo of people gathered in the background while camels, zebras, and llamas are being led in into a train cars with the signs for Cole Bros.

Coles Bros. Circus Animals Traveling by Train, Circa 1920s


Black and white photo of small boy and girl in front of a group of zebras with Cole Bros. Circus logo on a transportation vehicle in the background

Coles Bros. Circus, Circa 1920s

Black and white photo of circus tigers and lions in a large cage on elevated stands with a tamer ready to perform for seated audience

Lou Dufour Circus Lion and Tiger Show, Circa 1930s

The circus of the 1930s shares many similarities with the carnival of the same time period. The industry travelled by rail, and the parade to the
fairgrounds was always a must-see event. Small circuses were only a few train cars in size while the Greatest Show on Earth consisted of 90 train cars in 1930. The animal menageries, exotically painted wagons, and colourful costumes made the free event one not to miss. The main challenge was to get the locals to open their wallets when money was tight.

Black and white photo of circus elephants under a large cage with a circus performer doing a hand stand on top of an elephant in front of seated audience

Lou Dufour Circus Elephant Show, Circa 1930s

Black and white group photo of many people with a circus, visible is a very obese woman, a band, people in costumes, women in bathing suits and large cut boards with the circus title and one of a painted face with a large open mouth

Johnny J. Jones Oriental and European Circus, 1932

The Depression era circus had many acts you can still see today, such as trapeze acts, the human cannonball, equestrians and clowns. Many other acts, like the Wild West Show, trained bears and elephant acts, have since disappeared. Animal acts were an integral part of the circus. Contemporary circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil, did not begin until the 1970s.

Outside of the circus tent there could be a sideshow featuring human marvels and oddities. There would also be an animal menagerie where people could visit the exotic animals when they were not performing. Many of these attractions were also very similar to ones found at the carnival.