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It’s a Circus Out There! Part 2

18 February 2010 Stories and Appreciations 5,627 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: In part one of this two-part series on the circuses of the 1800s, Kobi Shaw wrote about how the uphill battle the circus faced in winning over puritans and skeptics. Today, she writes about those elements of the classic circus that have influenced our modern lives. Read part one here!

It says a lot that the people of the mid-1800’s were willing to part with their hard-earned money, or to take time off from work, to attend the circus. Often, the arrival of a circus meant school cancellations and businesses closing early so townspeople could greet the traveling caravan. Locals found work with the circus, assisting in setting up of the Big Top and other tents needed to house the grand spectacle. Many youths worked too, hoping to earn free admittance into the show. Circus fever was spreading, and with it many came many myths, legends and vernacular that are part of our world today.

You may not realize it, but the iconic character Uncle Sam was actually based on a wildly popular circus clown named Dan Rice. With his “chin whiskers,” striped costume and top hat, Harper’s Weekly magazine transformed a caricature of Rice into Uncle Sam back in the 1860s.

Circus impresario “Popcorn George” target=”blank” was known for inventing popcorn balls. However, he was also remembered for spitting tobacco into the lemonade at his shows, too. Apparently this was his way of discouraging employees from drinking the lemonade, which would cut into profits.

Speaking of lemonade, rumor has it that pink lemonade was originated at the circus. On one sweltering summer day, a lemonade vendor ran out of his liquid refreshment. Not wanting to lose sales, he grabbed the nearest bucket of water he could find. The bucket had recently been used to rinse out a bareback rider’s red tights, tinting the water pink. But this did not stop the vendor, and the pink lemonade sold better than ever. History was made.

Women daredevils were very popular in the Golden Age of the Circus. These women were shot out of cannons, rode loop-the-loops in mini automobiles. They were trick bicycle riders, lion tamers and bareback riders. The public was so taken with these daring women that the men wanted in on the action, too. In some cases, male daredevils would even dress as women, believing audiences would be more impressed if a daring act was performed by a female.

Some circus terms you might already know without realizing it. Siamese twins came from the circus attraction Chang and Eng, twin brothers from Siam who were joined at the breastbone. The dancewear we refer to as “leotards” were named for the trapeze artist Jules Léotard, who was known for wearing skin tight, one-piece costumes. And if you’ve ever ordered something jumbo-sized, know that you are referring to a 12-foot-high, 14-foot-long, seven-ton East African elephant named Jumbo.

Fortunately, if you order a jumbo-sized lemonade today, it probably won’t have tobacco in it — and it won’t be made with dirty laundry water, either.

Kobi Shaw


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  1. […] EDITOR’S NOTE: This big top is too gigantic to fit in one Monkey Goggles article! Read part two of Kobi Shaw’s tales of circuses past here. […]

  2. Great story! Really enjoyed it.

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