“Jumbo the Children’s Giant Pet,” 1882. Poster, printed by the Hatch Lithographic Company, New York. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals
It may seem odd today, but for much of the 19th and well into the 20th century the circus was a really big deal in New York City. So much so that when P.T. Barnum’s famous sideshow attraction, a dwarf named Tom Thumb, got married in 1863, it was one of the biggest social and media events of the era. For a time the event even eclipsed coverage of the ongoing Civil War.
In his exhibition Circus and the City, on view now at the Bard Graduate Center, curator Matthew Wittman tells the story of how the circus evolved from modest equestrian shows into massive multi-ring spectacles which, at their peak, were the most popular form of entertainment in America. The exhibition features circus artifacts (like Tom Thumb’s suit), amazingly beautiful advertising posters, photographs, and paintings. Through these objects we learn how the rise of New York City as a of center culture, business, and media transformed the circus industry, and how, in turn, the circus transformed day-to-day life in New York City.
This week I spoke with curator Matthew Wittmann about the fascinating, funny, and sometimes disturbing history of the circus in New York City.
Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010 is on view at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan through February 3rd, 2013.
May Wirth. Photograph. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection
Birdcage hat worn by Felix Adler, ca. 1940-50. Circus World Museum
Children at WPA festival in Sheep Meadow, Central Park, May 2, 1936. Photograph. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
“First Time in New York, Ringling Bros’ World’s Greatest Shows, The Greatest Show Ever Seen in New York,”1909. Two-tone lithograph poster, printed by the Donaldson Lithographic Co., Newport, N.Y. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Collection
P.T. Barnum’s Museum and Menagerie Whole Ticket, 1871. Collection of the Barnum Museum, EL1988.22.1. Photographer: Paul Mutino
Striped pants, worn by Dan Rice, ca. 1860s. Hertzberg Circus Collection of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
“Nixon & Co.’s Mammoth Circus: The Great Australian Rider James Melville as He Appeared Before the Press of New York in His Opening Rehearsal at Niblo’s Garden,” 1859. Poster, printed by Sarony, Major, & Knapp, New York. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society
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