Before P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Bros. joined forces to create the “Greatest Show on Earth,” one man’s decisions single-handedly changed the American circus forever.
Big Top Beginnings
Born in 1802 in Somers, NY, showman and circus entrepreneur Joshuah Purdy Brown is credited for introducing the animal menagerie and the circus tent into the American circus. Yes, without Brown, there would be no touring “big top” or lion tamers. Little information is available on Brown’s personal life. We do know that other members of his family participated in the circus and collecting and showcasing exotic animals. Between family involvement and the circus’s growing popularity in America, Brown entering the ring seems like a logical decision for an adventurous businessman.
About sixty years prior to Brown’s circus in America, Philip Astley, a horse trainer during the Seven Years’ War in England, established the traditional circus. Astley combined his trained horses with other theatrical elements, e.g., trapeze artists, contortionists, and jugglers. He hosted these shows in circular arenas, calling them circuses (circus is Latin for circle). The circus became wildly popular in England and the European continent and soon found its way to America. The British circus Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured along the eastern coast of the U.S. between 1800-1820. Brown made no hesitation after seeing the circus’s success, and stepped into the ring with Purdy, Welch & Company.
The Issue of a Tent
At the time Brown started his own circus venture with partner Lewis Bailey in 1825, the U.S. was in the middle of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840). It was an era of social reform and religious revivalism — and what ultimately led Brown to make his famous decision. Coming into Wilmington, Delaware, they soon found out that public amusements were prohibited. This was not surprising given the town’s Awakening history. Brown had to make a quick decision about where he could possibly set up shop. Circuses performed inside buildings or underneath wooden, roofless structures customarily — making them a more permanent/semi-permanent showcase — but this was not an option.
Instead of leaving the town entirely, Brown decided to erect a large canvas tent just outside Wilmington’s city limits and perform the circus underneath. The set up was small, with only one ring and a few seats, but it gave the circus “wheels.” Brown’s circus was now able to tour from site to site easily. Canvas was incredibly affordable and convenient, and encouraged the use of wagons and wheels to transport equipment and performers along with the growing western border. By the 1830s, the tent became a circus staple. Brown made the circus an itinerant form of American entertainment, unique from the European circus that first impressed him.
Brown continued on to tour Virginia in 1826, the river banks of Mississippi in 1828, and soon incorporated the first and perhaps most iconic circus animal into his act: an elephant. Yes, you can blame Brown for making the controversial use of animals in the circus popular. He soon collected more exotic animals to incorporate into his show, training them for various routines. Called “a menagerie,” Brown came into the temporary possession of a host of exotic animals in 1832. He toured under the name Brown’s Circus and Menagerie.
A Life Cut Short
Unfortunately, Brown died suddenly in June of 1834 in Mobile after a performance. His brother Oscar Brown took over his circus. It wouldn’t be years until another notable figure would influence American circuses to the extent that Brown did.