At the turn of the century. America was witness to the full flowering of a unique art form, the art of the American circus. Created by artisans trained in the European craft traditions, the carvings, banners, and posters of the American circus once constituted an exciting and homogeneous whole. The carvings in particular represented a level of creativity easily the equal of the cigar store Indians and ships’ figureheads so treasured by antique collectors and curators. Perhaps the reason they were never quite accepted as works of art was the contemporary belief among the genteel that the circus was synonymous with vulgarity, and that nothing worth-while could come out of it. Now that we have lost the circus as it was. we have come to appreciate its mute remains.
From the very beginning, canny entrepreneurs realized that the necessity of taking their circus wagons through a town on the way to the fair-grounds could be turned into a virtue. Out of this necessity came the parade, small at first, but gradually growing in magnitude, until at the turn of the century one advertisement was able to boast: “A million dollar free street parade, numbering four hundred horses, military bands, chimes of the cathedral organ, uncaged wild beasts, children’s fairyland parade, happy childhood’s sweetest dreams represented on beautiful floats driven by fifty Shetland ponies, moving under the iridescent sheen of a thousand shimmering banners, comprising a vision of beauty as varied as the stars and more gorgeous than the spectacle of the Caesars.” An old man. looking back, remembers that “Its effect on the population was such that schools and factories would often close on parade day. an act of sour grapes benevolence, since adults and children alike would leave anyhow.”
The parade has vanished, and most of the wagons, too. have crossed the river. But not all. not quite all. as demonstrated in the fine photographs on the next pages. They show in evocative detail some of the authentic and handsomely restored wagons at the Circus World Museum, of Baraboo. Wisconsin, the world’s largest collection.