Cover image for The circus age : culture & society under the American big top
The circus age : culture & society under the American big top
Davis, Janet M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xviii, 329 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Circus day -- The circus as a historical and cultural process -- Spectacular labor -- Respectable female nudity -- From the king of beasts to clowns in drag -- Instruct the minds of all classes -- Legacies : from Las Vegas to The bridges of Madison County.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV1803 .D38 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
GV1803 .D38 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GV1803 .D38 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A century ago, daily life ground to a halt when the circus rolled into town. Across America, banks closed, schools canceled classes, farmers left their fields, and factories shut down so that everyone could go to the show. In this entertaining and provocative book, Janet Davis links the flowering of the early-twentieth-century American railroad circus to such broader historical developments as the rise of big business, the breakdown of separate spheres for men and women, and the genesis of the United States' overseas empire. In the process, she casts the circus as a powerful force in consolidating the nation's identity as a modern industrial society and world power.

Davis explores the multiple "shows" that took place under the big top, from scripted performances to exhibitions of laborers assembling and tearing down tents to impromptu spectacles of audiences brawling, acrobats falling, and animals rampaging. Turning Victorian notions of gender, race, and nationhood topsy-turvy, the circus brought its vision of a rapidly changing world to spectators--rural as well as urban--across the nation. Even today, Davis contends, the influence of the circus continues to resonate in popular representations of gender, race, and the wider world.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The sight of trains pulling in and circus tents being set up was the highlight of the year for many American towns at the turn of the century; schools and stores closed and everyday life stood still. In 1903, 98 circuses and menageries the highest number in U.S. history traveled the nation. In this fascinating, provocative history of a democratic form of public entertainment, Davis, an American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, elucidates the enormous cultural impact of the railroad circus and how it became a "powerful cultural icon" and a concrete representation "of racial diversity, gender difference, bodily variety, animalized human beings, and humanized animals" as well as a "celebration of America's emerging role as a global power." Davis presents her theoretical material carefully, but the profuse illustrations of her theses make the book compulsively readable. By meticulously scrutinizing individual circus acts and exhibits e.g., "statue girls," near-naked women covered in white greasepaint to resemble art, challenged concepts of femininity; "learned pigs" questioned the concept of human intelligence; clowns and strongmen became the visible manifestations of public discussions about masculinity she shows how circuses provided a vibrant, visceral forum for the era's cultural changes. Arguing that circuses "helped catapult a `nation of loosely connected islands' into a modern nation-state with an increasingly shared national culture," Davis traces how this continues today, in different forms, in places like Disneyland and Las Vegas. Smart and impressively researched, this is an important contribution to the literature of popular culture and U.S. cultural history. Color and b&w illus. (Sept. 23) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Davis (Univ. of Texas) provides an important and highly readable examination of the relationship between circus and US society at the beginning of the 20th century. Community life was transformed when one of the giant railroad shows arrived in town, with its overwhelming spectacle of scantily clad acrobats, exotic animals, and visions of distant lands and times. Norms were both reinforced and challenged as the circus presented visions that, however unusual, were rooted in American ideas about race, gender, the human body, animals, and the emerging role of the US on the world stage. Davis did prodigious research and, like David Carlyon in his Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of (2001), places circus performance in historic and social context. Coming at a time of renewed interest in circuses due to the emergence of upscale organizations such as Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple, Davis's book explores a time when circus was closer to the mainstream of American life. Including illustrations (eight in color) and extensive notes and bibliography, this book is strongly recommended for readers at all levels. R. Sugarman emeritus, Southern Vermont College