Little Big Top

circus4Blitz Magazine, October 2000

For ages, circuses were the prime—or only—form of entertainment for entire communities, particularly those in rural areas. In Ancient Rome, chariot races took place in oval arenas (anything to do with horses takes place in oval or circular structures; ‘circus’ is a Latin word stemming from the Greek ‘krikos’, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘ring’). In Medieval times, clowns, musicians, trick riders and acrobats began to travel with the horse acts; also at this time, tents were erected over the ovals.

North America’s first circus was started by a Philadelphia man in 1793. Three years later, the first elephant was brought to America and the collection and exhibition of exotic animals became popular. This practice is, of course, now considered to be cruel and déclassé (and has been eclipsed by sophisticated acts such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil).

The Golden Age of circuses began in the 1870s, by which time they included brass bands, fancy costumes and eye-catching graphics for advertising purposes. Lavish parades announced each troupe’s arrival, with the circus rolling into town in ornately decorated wagons and gilded cages. Circuses were mobile communities, including performers, trainers, production people, barbers, costumers, teachers, doctors. They lived and worked in their colourful caravans—often, entire families stayed with the same circus for generations.

The Golden Age came to an end in the late 1920s. A short time later, circus historian Gordon Potter hired Michigan miniaturist Bert Backstein to construct a miniature model of a circus as it really was. Half a century later, Backstein’s son completed the collection (now known as the Potter Backstein Collection and owned by Vancouver businessman Bob Moore).

The collection’s components are slightly larger than the standard one-inch-to-one-foot scale, and consist of 250 wagons, a 400-piece menagerie of painted ceramic and wooden animals, and 125 carved and painted circus performers, band members and workers. Half of the wagons are miniature replicas of actual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus wagons from the Golden Age; others are replicas of wagons from the renowned Hagenbeck Wallace Circus (1907-1938).

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6 comments on “Little Big Top

  1. ‘Medieval times’ is pushing it a bit far! The compilation of acts into one formal entertainment, stemming from a base of trick horse-riding, came in the last decades of the 18th Century; the regular use of tents over the 13m diameter rings (a standard size based on the centripetal force required to keep a performer upright as their horse charges around the ring) was uncommon until well into the 19th Century. Whilst we’re at it, the first American circus in Philadelphia was established by an Englishman, John Bill Ricketts!
    Enjoyed reading about the miniatures though 🙂

    • Louise Aird says:

      Thanks for that Katharine. I think you might be thinking only of North America, though.
      The Romans were the first to gather different types of ‘entertainment’, in once place, for the enjoyment of very large groups. England started to see traveling entertainers during the Dark Ages (jugglers, minstrels), and they would often set themselves up with tenting. Queen Elizabeth I made the practice illegal. That’s when permanent, covered arenas appeared. Sadler’s Wells was the first, in 1683; in 1769 Philip Astley opened the first ‘circus’ building, The New British School of Amphitheater Riding Ring. In 1779, he had a roof put on it.
      That’s just England–‘Circus’-type organizations have existed, all over the world, for centuries.

      • Yeah, it’s really hard to pin-point exact definitions in relation to circus! I was thinking of the formalised entertainment that is usually recognised as the ‘birth of modern circus’ by circus historians such as George Speaight. Maybe the article is over-simplified for my taste, and gave me the wrong impression of your research – but it is difficult with such a vast subject when you’ve got a word count to adher to!
        I wasn’t aware trick riding was used as an artistic entertainment before the Astley era (thinking of the Roman games in more of a sporting vein), so I’ve learnt something too!

  2. Louise Aird says:

    I imagine that trick-riding began when men started riding horses–back when people didn’t have much else to do (lol). The skill of the Mongolian horsemen, for example, has been famous (and feared) for centuries. And you’re right about the word count–all of these art/museum exhibit blurbs had to fit in a particular space on the inside back page of the magazine. Maybe, when I’m finished loading in my portfolio, I’ll go back and expand on this piece (and others).

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