THE CIRUS was another form of popular entertainment now gradually evolving. It did not spring full-panoplied upon the world, this dazzling combination of animal exhibits, equestrian performances, band music, and crude comedy. Nor was it a revival of those elaborate spectacles, marked by the cruelty of the gladiatorial contest, whereby the rulers of Rome had sought to quell, the restlessness of the populace. The American circus, with all its distinctive features, was a native product. It was a combination of the little menageries and bands of itinerant acrobats which had put on their performances at the colonial taverns and the more sophisticated equestrian circuses which had been staged in city amphitheatres (the pit easily converted into a ring) since the close of the eighteenth century. It became primarily a traveling tent show, providing the rural population with an equivalent for the popular theatre and the variety-hall. It was one answer to the need for diversion of country people who found themselves isolated from the multiplying attractions of city life.
Among the traveling animal exhibits early in the century, the most ambitious was that of Hackaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York. Soon after the War of 1812 he toured New England with the famous elephant Old Bet. She created a tremendous sensation; everywhere crowds flocked to see her. To avoid giving a free show en route, Bailey had to travel by night. But learning that the elephant was coming the farmers lined the road with huge bonfires, and Old Bet literally traveled in a blaze of glory. Until she met her tragic end -- shot by an irate Maine farmer whose bigotry could not condone even the exhibition of an elephant -- she had a spectacular success.
It inspired other managers of traveling menageries. They began to make more extensive tours, aided by the slow improvement of roads, and animal exhibits became a feature of village entertainment. Barn shows were given, with admission usually 12 ½ cents, at which the farmers gaped wonderingly at strange apparitions from another world. Contemporary notices tell of one in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1816 at which a tiger, buffalo, and dancing dogs were exhibited; of another in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, twelve years later with a bear, a wolf, a camel, and a monkey.
In this same period acrobats also began to join forces to travel about the country together. These little groups of entertainers would send a clown ahead to announce their coming with a few antics on the village green (precursor of the circus parade), and the performance would be given at night. Not in a tent. A piece of canvas would be stretched about a small platform, the troupe's wagons drawn up to serve as box seats at twenty-five cents apiece; and tight-rope dancer, juggler, or sword-swallower would go through his fascinating routine on a stage lit by flaring pine torches.
For long the menageries and the acrobatic troupes maintained a separate identity. Sometimes they traveled together, the one staging its performance in the afternoon and the other in the evening; but there were two distinct shows. Gradually they began to join forces. The proprietors of the menageries added a few acrobatic performers; managers of the acrobats included animal exhibits. A more ambitious joint entertainment developed which was usually staged under canvas.