Circus day in small American towns in the nineteenth century usually meant that there was an influx of people from the surrounding countryside. They came by horse and wagon or on horseback, and they spent the day. Their rigs lined the streets and access roads. “A thousand teams in town,” a newspaper reported on circus day. They arrived early enough to watch the parade, eat some food, and attend the show. It was a festive occasion for farmers; a time in which they could talk to neighbors whom they saw only occasionally, have a horse shod, visit the saloon. Their wives would chat with friends, and buy some necessities. The children could run about in places they seldom visited, and play with others their own age.
These invasions of the town, along with the fair and the Fourth of July and election days and militia drills, were a boon to local merchants. “All the stores ran out of crackers and bologna,” was a comment on one such occasion. There were no restaurants, of course, though meals could be purchased at taverns or inns. Many people brought food from home and “pick-nicked” either before or after the performance. Because of the presence of this multitude, itinerant vendors set up stands to sell food or drink, and even to entertain the public. It is these hangers-on which are the subject of this paper.
Today, we use the word “sideshow” to denote an annex to the circus as presented under the big top. “Sideshow” is a contraction of the original term, which was “out-side shows.” The two terms mean the same thing. The earliest reference we have to any business on the lot other than the circus performance is to whiskey stands, and these date from the late eighteenth century. Since the circus and the whiskey stands appear at the same time we are under the impression that whiskey stands pre-date the circus. We mentioned fairs, militia musters and other occasions for crowds. Apparently, whiskey stands were a long-standing tradition by the time the circus began. All the vendor needed was two sawhorses, a board, a cup and a bottle or two.
On circus lots the consumption of liquor led to arguments and fights and riots. The phrase “fueled by liquor,” was a common newspaper comment in reports of violence. We must remember that every neer-dowell and loafer in the community would be present on circus day, just as they would at any public gathering. If there was no drunkenness or fighting it was unusual enough for editors to remark it. When the Number One unit of the Zoological Institute visited Dedham, Massachusetts, in July of 1835 the local paper said, “No spirits or wines were sold on the grounds, and of course all was sobriety and good order.” (1) The other side of the coin is represented by a Jamestown, New York, newspaper on the occasion of the Joe Pentland Circus’ visit in June, 1855: “An unusual amount of drunkenness . . . the liquor was doubtless mostly furnished by the peddlers who follow the circus.” (2)
Food and drink vendors, trinket sellers and operators of games of chance all vied for the public’s money. In time, they became so numerous on the grounds that they inspired comment. The Purdy, Welch & Co. Menagerie played Newport, New Hampshire, in August, 1833, and when they left the local editor wrote, “Attached to this caravan, or at all| events accompanying it, are a set of money-catchers who sell tin-ware, jewelry, ready-made clothing and notions at auction. A dice board was on the lot for the amusement and entertainment of the patrons of vice.” (3)
Auctions were a common way of selling clothing and household goods in the days before retail stores pre-priced their wares. Much of the wholesale business in the country was conducted by auction, as were the sale of commodities in bulk, such as wheat, corn and tobacco. Allen and Lewis Sells of circus fame operated an auction wagon in their early years, visiting fairs and festivals and circus grounds. In an interesting aside to that, the Billboard once noted that the brothers were not allowed on the lot of the Gardner & Hemmings Circus until they paid a privilege fee. (4)
A Jackson, Michigan, reporter wrote in July, 1851, “Pop-beer, soda, lemonade and gingerbread met with a ready market and many a street dealer came near to making his fortune.” (5) Other comments we have found include one from Youngstown, Ohio, in 1856, “We did not count the side shows, but as usual there were a number in the wake of the big show.” He went on to describe what we now call a ten-in-one, and then said that there were the usual gingerbread, pop and candy stands, as well as the ubiquitous auctioneers. (6)
Gingerbread, by the way, was popular with street vendors because it had what, in modem terms, is called a long shelf-life. It could be carried from town to town for several days and one only needed to wipe the dust from it to make it presentable on the next lot.
The Nixon & Kemp Circus of 1857 provided the impetus for two descriptions of the outside shows. The first is in a letter in the Michigan Historical Collections in which a student at the University describes the lot scene for his brother. He writes, “Arrived at the ground we found that there was not only the one great circus, but that there was any quantity of little side shows, lotteries, etc., to pick away the change from one’s pocket. One man was yelling that he had in his tent a live skeleton, another that he had a great band of negro minstrels, another that he had some of the most curious animals in the world. Another had a lifting machine to show how much one could lift, another an arrow balanced on a pivot over a board and over the board was placed some brass rings, breastpins, watches, etc., so that one could turn around this arrow or give it a whirl and whatever it stopped over they could have; another had a man’s face pictured on a board and set up and if anyone could hit it on the nose he would give him a circus ticket or a quarter of a dollar, the one that shot was to use a rifle which was loaded with a dart. I looked at them all wondering at the many ways men have to make money and pitying these poor ones who had become so low as to resort to this miserable method of gaining a livelihood. I noticed that they were all, without exception, poor drunken wretches. (7)
The second description is from the Bloomington, Illinois, Pantograph and says that in addition to the circus there was a man who played twelve drums at once, a fat girl, a living skeleton, a man with several bells on his head and a crank-operated fiddle in his hands, a machine that tested one’s strength, a wheel that designated what prize a person had won (the prize worth about three cents and played for a dime, according to the reporter), a revolving grab bag (more profitable to the owner than to anyone else) and a razor sharpener. (8)
In 1858 the Dan Rice Circus made a stand in Bucyrus, Ohio, and a visit by a local newsman brought forth this description: “There were a half-dozen supplementary tents, containing most attractive, instructive and elevating exhibitions. One contained a French giant, with a Prussian name and an English face, whose portrait outside occupied a full twelve feet of canvas. Another hid from public sight the ‘Skeleton Man,’ whose merits and perfections were not only depicted upon canvas, but were noisily heralded to an admiring crowd by a round, brandy-faced Johhny Bull. . . .
‘There were divers and sundry other exhibitions but these may be taken as specimen bricks. All supported an orator, and around the entrances to all a strong odor of whisky might be detected.” (9)
We can see that these descriptions are very similar, and that the writers felt that the maze of outside shows needed to be described.
The most complete report we’ve thus came far discovered is in the Janesville, Wisconsin. Democratic Standard of May 31, 1854, the week following the stand of Franconi’s Hippodrome. The editor remarked that the score or more of side shows began setting up early in the morning. First came the wax works show. Two wagons drove up and were joined together to make a respectable, meaning sizable, room with a canvas roof. They had excellent music, but the wax figures left something to be desired. Then came Ethiopian singers, with a white man painted black, riding around on a mule to draw a crowd. At every point there was a tent with a show in it. They charged from five to fifty cents, and they were well attended. Intermixed with the tents were the booths of the razor strop men, the soap men, the lemonade and cake men, while two singing girls with organ tambourine and wandered among the crowds playing and picking up coppers. The living skeleton had his admirers, so did the sea lion, and the wild boy of the woods, and each seemed to do a good business until the Hippodrome opened, when the others closed their shows to let the big show have a full swing. There was obviously some control over the out-side shows by the Franconi management. Perhaps they sub-let space on their lot, or simply made an agreement with the small operators to close when the big show began. As we noted, Hemmings & Cooper demanded a privilege fee of the Sells brothers; we would date that 1868, at the earliest. We have found no documentation of any agreements concerning out-side shows.
To illustrate how pervasive these side-shows were in the order of things social, we will illustrate with one more description, but not from a circus lot. The annual militia musters that every community was required to support consisted of the local part-time soldiery establishing a camp, tents and all, outside of town. In 1858 the Salem Gazette described the local scene as follows: “The booths and show tents are clustered in great profusion. One tent exhibits anacondas . . . a ‘blowing machine’ will convince young men of the natural power of their lungs, and no doubt add twenty years to their original life lease, for the very trifling sum of ten cents. Soap is administered in lots to suit the crowd; brass jewelry sparkles in the sunlight with a golden look that can’t fail to convince one of the ‘starvation prices’ at which it is being retailed; white cakes, candy, beer, oysters and all sorts of refreshments, stand ready to be exchanged for the money of the dear people. (10)
We think we see from this that it was possible to make some sort of a living by following the public to its various gatherings, be they in the nature of entertainment or civic exercises. The Belleville, Illinois, Standard commented on the 1853 stand in that town by the P. T. Barnum Caravan that “the biggest humbug played off in the town was by the little concerns, called side-shows which got off without paying any license.” (11)
By way of explanation of the relationship between Barnum and these hangers-on, whether correct or not we don’t know, the Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 12, 1854, printed the following: “Neither Barnum nor his agents have anything to do with the myriad of small affairs that swarm around this magnificent exhibition.”
That some circus proprietors were not pleased with all these moths hovering around their candle cannot be doubted. As part of their 1870 advertising, Van Amburgh & Co. inserted this notice in newspapers: “No sideshows, other than those belonging to Van Amburgh & Co., allowed with this exhibition. This keeps off dice, cards, jewelry cases, chuck-a-luck, thimble rigging and the thousand other things usually hanging on to . . . a great concern. We’ve got the scoundrels this year, and we are aided by authorities everywhere.” (12)
In 1879, during Cooper & Bailey’s stand in Jackson, Michigan, the local paper reported, “The sheriff and marshal in Jackson arrested twenty-one con men, crooks, etc. . . . who were following the circus. The circus detective pointed them out and they were jailed until the show left town.” (13)
Two years earlier, when Montgomery Queen’s company was in Jackson, the same newspaper said, “We had no idea a circus manager could be so successful in abolishing all sideshows, candy and peanut stands, peddlers and mountebanks.” (14)
Discovering, as we have, that it was possible to drive away the army of peddlers, we have to come to the conclusion that those who did not drive them away, condoned their presence. Why would this be? Obviously, the privilege fees increased the showman’s income. If the peddlers wanted space on the lot they had to pay for it. Even the Ringling Brothers Circus, known far and wide as a “Sunday school show,” free of grift and even honest games, pocketed the privilege fees of food and drink vendors. Ernie Millette, the famous acrobat, observed during the 1898 Waco, Texas, stand: “Our big top entrance is fronted ten-deep with snack stands selling beer, peanuts, chili con carne and every kind of edibles from candies to luncheons.” (15)
One supposes that show managers had to decide at what point the outside vendors interfered with inside sales. The same food and drink that was peddled outside was also being sold on the seats. And the games of chance, which were a source of complaints and arguments, were either chased off the lot or brought into the kid show or the menagerie as privileges. It was fairly easy for the large circuses to dispense with unwanted out-side shows. In fact, it was probably wise of them to do so, as they had a large investment and presumably wanted to have a good reputation. Smaller circuses, dependent on every dime of income, were not always in a position to turn away a source of income such as privilege men could offer. We’ve all heard stories wherein privilege men made more money on a season than the circus itself. And there are just as many examples of privilege men buying into a show, partially or wholly, either to run it themselves or to use it as a vehicle for their questionable practices.
About the time of the first World War, the street carnival movement came into flower. This type of amusement, essentially a collection of out-side shows, relieved the circus from being the main focus for much of this trade. As a consequence, the activity on the circus lot became mainly the circus itself, abetted by a few local vendors, and the captive salesmen employed by the show. Even today, at any place a crowd gathers, be it at a ballpark or a movie line or a local street fair, there will be entrepreneurs hawking something. They might be fireeaters, acrobats, mimes, jugglers or T-shirt salesmen, but however temporary their employment or small their place on the pavement they stand as the modern embodiment of a long line of out-side shows in the entertainment history of America.
1. Norfolk Advertiser, (Dedham, MA), 11 July 1835.
2. Jamestown Journal (New York), 1 June 1855.
3. Spectator (Newport, NH), 17 August 1833.
4. Undated clipping, Chindahl papers, Circus World Museum.
5. American Citizen (Jackson, MI), 16 July 1851.
6. Mahoning County Register (Youngstown, OH), 19 June 1856.
7. Letter in the files of the Michigan Historical Collections, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
8. Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), 26 May 1857.
9. Bucyrus Journal (OH), 28 May 1858.
10. Salem Gazette (MA), 27 August 1858.
11. Standard (Belleville, IL), 23 August 1853.
12. Republican Register (Galesburg, IL), 21 June 1870.
13. Daily Citizen (Jackson, MI), 3 June 1879.
14. Ibid., 29 September 1877.
15. Ernest Schlee Millette and Robert Wyndham, The Circus That Was, Doirance and Co. (Phila., 1971), p. 76.
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