Invention of the Big Top Tent
In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown (1802?-1834) revolutionized the circus business and other traveling shows. He held his performances under a large, portable canvas tent. This innovation allowed shows to move between cities quickly and easily, go anywhere, stay as long or short as they desired, and perform rain or shine. With this flexibility, Brown’s show could perform and have an income six days per week. In 1825, the first season that Brown and his partner Lewis Bailey used a tent, they traveled from Wilmington, Delaware, into Virginia, stopping at Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Norfolk, Lawrenceville, and Lynchburg, and then up the Shenandoah Valley to Maryland and Pennsylvania. All of these shows were performed under a tent: the only indoor location that season was in Washington, DC.
By the mid 1830s, the canvas tent system had become commonplace.
By the mid 1830s, the canvas tent system had become commonplace. With this mobility, owners now could schedule shows in 150 or more different cities in a season, performing six days a week, but they now needed wagons to transport the equipment as well as the horses to pull the wagons and personnel to drive the wagons and erect the tent. The tent was a mixed blessing — it allowed the circus to show in smaller places, but created a greater overhead. Thayer remarks that, “the tent added to the proprietor’s daily expense, and changed the relationship between himself and his employees. Instead of erecting costly arenas he now had the cost of wagons to carry his property, of horses to pull the wagons and of teamsters to drive them.
The performers and musicians, theretofore on their own as to food and lodging, now traveled constantly with the company.” A circus now needed a reliable income to offset the constant daily expenses. Greater mobility meant that circuses could move faster but it also meant that owners had less time to build up audiences and bring in revenue. There was growing pressure to bring in audiences quickly and efficiently. As tents grew bigger, the performers became more removed from the audience and the acts had to be more eye-catching and more spectacular, which of course added to the expense of running and moving the show.
the tent changed the relationship between the audiences and the performers
A more interesting consequence of this change, however, is how the tent changed the relationship between the audiences and the performers. Initially, circuses were intimate shows and audiences were quite close to the performers in structures that were often custom-built in that city. The show stayed around for weeks or months at a time, mingling with the local populace. Audiences would become familiar with the performers and shows would offer a variety of acts to bring people back in. If the circus used permanent buildings, it might share the facilities with theaters companies or music performances. These buildings might also be quite intimate and the audience would be able to see small details of each act. When the American circus broke away from this type of setting, the relationship between audience and performer lost some of its intimacy and relied more heavily on large-scale effects and more generic acts that would please larger groups. European circus performances, on the other hand, did not adopt canvas tents but continued to use existing buildings well into the 20th century. Consequently, European circuses have much closer ties to theatre and have maintained a greater emphasis on nuanced relationships between performer and audience.
The arrival of the tent also complicated the already difficult task of promoting shows to prospective audiences. Advertising materials had to provoke excitement and anticipation of seeing a show that was around for one day only. The printed bills that were used in the 18th, 19th and 20th century had to give the populace the necessary information to catch their attention; namely, title, date, and featured acts. John Bill Ricketts used printed bills to advertise his show. Pepin & Breschard used printed bills depicting an equestrian on a horse waving American flags. By 1822 with the first steam-powered press, the cost of printing of the posters could be reduced and the output of posters was increased.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the American circus had reached a level of popularity in the country that no other form of entertainment could rival. This was also true with its advertising. In the summer of 1983 edition of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Richard Flint states: “The circus led the way in large, illustrated newspaper advertisements and virtually developed the outdoor advertising business by the use of huge, colorful posters. As early as 1833 a New Hampshire editor noted that the traveling shows were operating ‘on a new plan … in order to excite the curiosity of the people…. Large show bills measuring seven or eight feet in length proportionately made with cuts representing the remarkable docility of the lions and the great feats of the monkey’ were now to be seen in the towns” (p. 214-215). As early as the 1830s, large presses allowed the printers to combine large poster together to produce billboard-size posters.