It was the turn of the century. Horse drawn carts loaded flatbed railway cars with circus carriages, tents and poles. Entire towns of people could erect a sea of tents in a day, before tearing it all down to hit the road once again.
As “The Greatest Showman” is shown in theaters across the country, the film’s connection to Williamsburg lives in the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary.
Aaron De Groft, now director of the Muscarelle, spent 13 years as the deputy director and chief curator at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
The museum houses a collection of circus memorabilia and art from The Greatest Show on Earth as well as the other travelling circuses in the United States.
While serving as the museum’s chief curator, De Groft became intimately aware of the trials and tribulations of the circus business.
From the divisement of a logistics system so efficient the U.S. military wanted to use it, to the fire that destroyed P.T. Barnum’s “museum” in New York City and the reported escape of a lion in the incident, De Groft said, circuses across the country innovated to bring entertainment to the people.
While life was difficult for many Americans, the circus and its sideshows could bring joy to the people.
“The late 1800s weren’t the best of times for people in U.S., still a hard life,” De Groft said. “The circus was a way to take people away from their life for a little while.”
At the turn of the century, major circuses across the country were consolidated and put under one tent.
By 1907, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had merged as a business, despite the fact the two circuses still operated separately.
The consolidations happened just in time for the growing prominence of both silent film and ”talkies.”
“The Greatest Showman” was inspired by the life of one of the circus industry’s giants: P.T. Barnum, De Groft said.
“The movie takes liberties, but it’s well done,” De Groft said. “The tragedy of the fire with the animals running wild in New York is true.”
As other types of entertainment continued to arise and tragedies struck at the heart of the American circus, the businesses started a decades-long decline.
“When other forms of entertainment like the Ice Capades, Disney on Ice and other ‘theater shows’ emerged, it was hard to keep circuses as profitable,” De Groft said.
That decline hit its last stop in May 2017 when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced it was going out of business after 146-years.
While the circus may be gone, the show goes on in places like the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Fragments of circus history live on in the museum, but trumpeting elephants, roaring lions, and laughing audiences are no longer the business of The Greatest Show on Earth.
Tom Davis contributed reporting to this story. To contact the reporter, email email@example.com.