History of the Circus: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Andrea Miller

Andrea is currently a social studies middle school teacher in Ohio. She has a BA in history as well as a MEd in education. She has taught workshops including OGT Success and Writing for Life. Andrea has also been a middle school debate team coach for several years.

Circuses have delighted adults and children alike for hundreds of years. In this lesson you will learn about the history of circuses all the way from horse shows to traveling animals and oddities.

History of the Circus

If you have ever been to a circus, you might be aware of the magical feeling in the air. The performers flying through the air, the animals performing amazing routines, and the clowns making you laugh with their tricks. The circus can be a very fun and lively event, but where did the idea of a circus come from?

You might be surprised to know that circuses were actually born in England and not America. Philip Astley, a native of London, started displaying his talent for horse training across the world, and before he knew it, he had a full-blown show that attracted crowds from all over the world.

The Early Years

Philip Astley had been a soldier in the French and Indian War fought in America between the French and the British. While acting as a soldier, Astley discovered his talent as a horse trainer. Once the war was over, Astley returned to London in 1768 to teach horseback riding in the day and perform at night. Eventually, Astley created an arena to display his talents. His arena, like most today, was circular, and this is where we get the name circus.

After a couple of years of performing his horse tricks, Astley realized he would draw a bigger crowd with more acts. Therefore, he hired other talented artists like jugglers and acrobats. Astley would create the first circus in Paris, in 1782.

Painting of an early circus with horseback acrobatics and a clown
early circus

A New Face of the Circus

Many ring-leaders would follow after Astley with temporary buildings providing the arena for their grand performances all over Europe. However, by the 1800s in America, the face of the circus would begin to change. In addition to human performances, it would include wild animals and oddities.

  • In the early 1800s, Hachaliah Bailey bought an elephant and soon began to tour with her.
  • By the 1820s, there were many people traveling with groups of wild animals, called a menagerie.
  • In 1825, Joshua Purdy Brown put his circus in a canvas tent, which made it easy to pack up and move across America.
  • In the 1830s, people began to combine circus acts with the menagerie.
  • In the 1840s, P.T. Barnum began to travel with his museum of strange items and people. It was Barnum who would introduce the idea of the 'freak show' aspect of circuses.

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