The Circus Comes to Vermont

The circus is an event that has long held the imagination of people. Vermont joined the list of circus greats in more modern times when our own Circus Smirkus was created in 1987, showcasing youths ages 10-18 in a summer tour of performances. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the circus troupe, and they celebrated by putting a time travel theme on their northeastern tour this summer that ended in mid-August.

In the interest of time travel, this post takes a reflective look at how the circus influenced Vermonters in the 19th century.  The following images are advertisements for just a few of the various circuses that made their parade through Vermont, including, in its first year, the circus that transformed into the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus. These ads often stretched the height of a page and included details about the strange and amazing acts of the circus. The first example pleads its case by telling the readers that “a brief enumeration of the STARS will satisfy the public of the paramount excellence of the great Pentland Circus.” With a statement like that, how could we resist seeing it?

Detail from the September 11, 1858 issue of the Vermont Phoenix

Detail from the July 21, 1868 issue of the Vermont Transcript

Detail from the August 4, 1882 issue of the Burlington Weekly Free Press

Detail from the September 8, 1898 issue of the Burlington Weekly Free Press

The drama and danger of the circus particularly drew interest and made its way into the papers. The following is part of an account of a lion gone wrong at a circus performance:

Detail from the July 19, 1867 issue of the Vermont Transcript

The allure of the circus made its way into literature as well, as can be seen in this excerpt of a short prose piece by none other than Mr. Charles Dickens:

Detail from the October 14, 1859 issue of the Burlington Free Press

But the circus was not solely entertainment. Real people worked them, just as we can see in Vermont’s own thriving circus of today. The following is part of an obituary printed in the March 10, 1893 issue of the Vermont Phoenix for a Brattleboro man who had several years of circus employment:

The history of the circus is fascinating, and has captivated people for generations. It is alive and thriving today. For more information about Circus Smirkus and next summer’s tour, visit their website. Vermont’s own Shelburne Museum has a very interesting exhibit about circus history, including historical posters and miniature wooden circus parades, located in the Circus Building.

– Sally Blanchard

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