Circuses have been around for over two centuries. According to American History Through Literature,
“The circus, an itinerant entertainment comprising the exhibition of animals and the performances of skilled entertainers within rings, first appeared in America in 1793. The commercial display of spectacles, the exhibition of persons, animals, or objects possessed of unusual characteristics, first appeared in American museums perhaps as early as 1810.”
In 1770, Englishman Philip Astley created an equestrian entertainment that he expanded to include acrobats and comic acts. Having a winning event, Astley took his show on the road, which inspired others to compete against him. In 1792, English rider, John Bill Ricketts, brought the circus to the United States by opening a riding school in Philadelphia.
When the circus first started, the main attraction was horses. Ricketts held his first performance in April 1793, and his audience included President George Washington.
The circus helped to shape the advertising sector by introducing promotional materials filled with hyperbole about shows and exhibits. Since then, and even in many instances today, exaggeration is a key component of the American advertising. Promotional genius, and master copywriter, Phineas T. Barnum, along with James A. Bailey were instrumental in defining the image of the circus, with acrobats, exotic animals, clowns, trapeze artists and band music.
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In 1881, Barnum and Bailey merged their individual circuses to form Barnum and Bailey Circus. Ringling Brothers Circus purchased Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907, but let them run independently until 1919 when they merged both businesses.
The circus has evolved over the years, and like most any industry, has had its ups and downs. In more recent times, in the 1980s, the circus gained popularity again with outfits like Cirque du Soleil, which attracts animal rights activists in the audience since they do not use animals in their performances.
5 Business Lessons from the Circus
- Recruit the Best: Barnum and Bailey recruited the best and most celebrated circus performers in the world to make their circus better.
- Gain Strength With the Right Partners: In 1871, having already attained professional success, museum proprietor, bestselling author, and former politician, Phineas T. Barnum, entered the circus business by partnering with two veterans – W.C. Coup and Dan Costello. Ten years later, Barnum merged his circus with James A. Bailey.
- Evolve Your Business: In the early days of the circus, it consisted of mainly horses as the main attraction, then they introduced exotic animals, they had the “traveling menagerie, clowning, acrobatics, trick riding, wire walking, juggling, and sleight of hand,” and now they have circuses like Cirque du Soleil that do not use animals in their performances. Evolve your business or watch it die.
- Be Flexible: Circus owners take their show on the road to gain new audiences. They’ve held their shows in theatres, arena, town squares and tavern yards. They’ve also updated performance to reflect changing consumer tastes.
- Know Your Customers: PT Barnum and Ringling Brothers recognized that women and children were an important audience base. They targeted the middle class, and Barnum used “wholesome entertainment” as his Unique Selling Proposition. He also required that his employees remain sober. The best laid plans can go awry, and no one can fully control who her customer is. Unsavoury people like horse thieves and pickpockets often attended circus performances, and fights often erupted.
Final Thoughts: 5 Business Lessons from the Circus
There are many lessons we can learn by looking into the past. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you enjoyed this post, please share it.
P. T. Barnum – The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making MoneyThe Life of P. T. Barnum Written by HimselfP. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest ShowmanPT Barnum Premium CollectionP.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man
- St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, “Ringling Brothers & Bailey Circus.”
- Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America, “Circuses.”
- Dictionary of American History, “Circus and Carnival.”