New Exhibit “Under the Big Top” Explores the American Circus

Submitted by Jan Hebbard on

Image, Sparks Circus Performers
Photograph, performers and workers traveling with the Sparks Circus, 1922. Circus Ephemera Collection, Hargrett Library.

Step right up for a look behind the curtain at the shows that once dazzled American audiences in a new exhibit at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “Under the Big Top: The American Circus and Traveling Tent Shows,” opens to the public on Friday, Jan. 18 at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.

The exhibit explores circuses, vaudeville troupes, and other traveling tent shows in the United States in their heyday, from the 1820s to 1930s. It considers the technology that made modern traveling shows possible, as well as the cultural and economic factors that made them popular. Original posters, flyers, and advertisements highlight the circus as a pioneer of mass marketing techniques and demonstrate the ways in which this live entertainment shaped understandings of race, gender, popular science and concepts about animal rights. Original artifacts, photographs, and other ephemera invite visitors to inhabit this lost world of entertainment.

The exhibit spends time on well-known circuses like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, but also looks at the smaller shows that reached rural audiences. The Ramblin Doc’ Tommy Scott Collection fuels a section of the display, highlighting one showman’s career over seven decades. “Scott joined a traveling medicine show that passed through Toccoa in 1936. He literally ran away and joined the circus,” said exhibit curator Hunter Hellwig.

Scott’s collection includes packaging for the “Snake Oil” and “Herb-O-Lac” concoctions he sold, maps that meticulously marked each year’s tour stops, and photographs and letters documenting his long and varied career.

Program, Hagenback-Wallace Circus
Program, Hagenbeck-Wallace and 4-Paw Sells Bros Combined Circus, 1935.Circus Ephemera Collection, Hargrett Library. 

Featuring everything from acrobats and strongmen to comedy sketches and animal tricks, the live variety shows of vaudeville also figure into the exhibit. A loan of materials from magic ephemera collector Bill Kress includes original posters from noted magicians of the day and a substitution trunk used in the “Metamorphosis” illusion made famous by Harry Houdini. A magician never reveals his secrets, but visitors will have the chance to examine this famous prop in person.

The Hargrett Library Gallery is located inside the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries at 300 S. Hull Street. The building is free and open to the public 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1-5 Saturdays. “Under the Big Top” will remain on display through July 5, 2019