The country about Somers, New York, where Old Bet had had her start, became the headquarters for a number of these new rolling shows. They toured New England, worked their way south where warm weather gave them longer playing seasons, and gradually crept westward toward the frontier. But these pioneers of the circus had to be both enterprising and daring. Traveling conditions were still difficult, and in the rural districts the popular attitude was often severely disapproving. They had to perfom miracles in meeting the problem of transportation, and they could combat prejudice only by continually stressing the supposed cultural features of their entertainment. It was long before a circus dared call itself a circus. It clung to the name menagerie which the pious approved, invariably advertising the performance as "a great moral and educational exhibition." It was perhaps from their early association with such shows that James Fisk and Daniel Drew, both circus men in their young days, learned the technique which stood them in such good stead in their later exploitation of a gullible investing public.
By the 1830's some thirty rolling shows were regularly touring the country. Buckley and Wick had eight wagons, forty horses, thirty-five performers, and a tent holding eight hundred people. Soon the Zoölogical Institute advertised forty-seven carriages and wagons, one hundred and twenty matched gray horses, fourteen musicians, and sixty performers. The parade had by now been introduced; the performers came to town to the blare of a brass band. Still it was not the real circus. There was no ring; there were no riding acts.
The final step in the evolution of this institution, its merger with the equestrian shows of urban amphitheatres, took place just before mid-century. The popular appeal of riding and tumbling acts ( President Washington had been an impressed spectator at John Bill Ricketts' indoor circus in the 1790's) naturally suggested an addition to the program of the traveling tent shows. The more enterprising managers introduced a ring beneath the big top; the country as well as the city was treated to bareback riding and trick horsemanship. The thrills of equestrianism supplemented the lure of wild animals, and the circus as we know it to-day at last emerged in all its spangled glory.
The Mammoth Circus of Howe and Mabie -- "Greatest Establishment of its Kind in the World" -- ventured as far west as Chicago in the 1850's, and there faced the unexpected competition of the Grand Olympic Arena and United States Circus. Van Amburg and Company's Menagerie-still advertising itself as "the only moral and instructive exhibition in America" -- carried east and west its African ostriches nine feet high, its polar bears, and Hannibal, the world's largest elephant. Dan Rice, King of American Clowns, was earning $1,000 a week with his acrobatic nonsense; the famous Herr Driesbach was nonchalantly having his supper "at a table set in the den of his animals." Finally, in 1856, the Spaulding and Roger's Circus announced it would travel by railroad, nine special cars: "team horses and wagons won't do in this age of steam."
Nothing could have been more democratic than the circus. Traveling what was still pioneer country, Edmund Flagg found the little village of Carkinsville, Illinois, "absolutely reeling under the excitement of the 'Grand Menagerie.' From all points of the compass men, women and children, emerging from the forest, came pouring into the place, some upon horses, some in farm wagons, and troops of others on foot." 28 Seeing a performance at Newport, Belle Brittan wrote: "Everybody went -- all classes, ages, colors and conditions. There were as many as five thousand people there, all mixed up with the most democratic indiscrimination -- Fifth Avenue belles sitting on narrow boards with their dresses under their arms, alongside of Irish chambermaids and colored persons of all sizes and sexes."
Barnum now entered the circus field. It was not yet the Greatest Show on Earth, only a Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie, but nothing in the 1850's could rival it. General Tom Thumb was a first drawing-card; there was choice of all the freaks and curiosities of the American Museum, and a menagerie drawn from the four quarters of the earth. Barnum had chartered a ship, sent abroad for his own animals. It was an epochal day in circus history when his ten elephants, fresh from Ceylon, paraded up Broadway harnessed in pairs to a gilded chariot and amid the cheers of an immense crowd were reviewed by Jenny Lind from the balcony of tfie Irving House.