Having just watched "The greatest showman", I wonder what the meaning was for the word "circus" before the events depicted in the movie (around 1850).

At one point, P. T. Barnum opens his "museum" of wonders in Manhattan, New York. Then a critic watches the spectacle and writes in a despective way that it is a "circus" more than a museum. But Mr. Barnum fancies the word and uses it for his museum.

So, what did the critic mean by qualifying despetively the spectacle as a "circus" exactly? What did that word mean in American English by 1850?

  • 1
    It still meant a circus as you understand it today. Barnum did not invent the concept of a circus nor did was he the first to apply the word to the kind of show he’s famous for putting on. Circuses have existed for millennia. The word goes back to the Latin for for shows during Roman times very similar in concept to Barnum’s circus or circuses today. Google “the Royal Circus” which preceded Barnum by centuries.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 12, 2018 at 11:52
  • Yes, the idiom bread and circuses goes back quite a ways. Pontius Pilate hired Hero of Alexandria to build circus equipment.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 25, 2018 at 21:58

1 Answer 1


Barnum's only adopted a name with "circus" in it in 1881. There were plenty of circuses (that were called circuses) before Barnum's:

  • Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. They did a lot of dramatic performances and they also had people doing tricks on horses. I'm not sure what else they had.
  • Rickett's Circus (1793-1799):
    • Before long, a small group of performers from Ricketts's former British company joined him in Philadelphia. Among them were his brother Francis (1777-?), an equestrian and tumbler; Mr. Spinacuta, the rope-dancer, along with his wife, an attractive equestrienne who rode two horses at full gallop; Mr. McDonald, another tumbler who performed comic acrobatic intermezzos as the Clown; and Ricketts's pupil, young Master Strobach. The performance included a great many "feats of horsemanship," most of them presented by Ricketts himself, rope-dancing, some tumbling, and McDonald's acrobatic parodies. This was the first circus show ever put on in America.

  • Mabie's Circus (a.k.a. Howe & Mabie's Circus Company) 1840-?. According to a newspaper article I read, they had at least one clown. According to another article, they had animals. I'm not sure what else they had, but (at least in the early days) they had opera performances (buffo).

Unfortunately, I'm not finding much in the way of information about these circuses or how they changed over time.

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