American Circus Day is celebrated annually on April 3. This holiday celebrates the anniversary of the first circus performance in the U.S., which took place on April 3, 1793. Organized by British equestrian John Bill Ricketts, the open-air arena packed hundreds of spectators who ate up the performances, including President George Washington himself. Since its 18th century beginning, the circus grew in leaps and bounds, with various showmen bringing in innovations and acts. By the 19th century, American circuses were touring Europe, and Queen Victoria herself was treated to showy performances.
History of American Circus Day
The modern circus was birthed in England by Philip Astley, who opened a riding school in 1793. During the day, he taught riding lessons but in the afternoon, he performed tricks and other circus elements. One of Astley’s students happened to train a young Scotsman known as John Bill Ricketts, who then traveled to the U.S. On April 3, Ricketts debuted his circus performance in Philadelphia. Featuring a trick rider, an acrobat, a rope-walker, a clown, a boy equestrian, and Ricketts himself, the circus was held in a roofless arena that could seat 800 people.
In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown revolutionized the circus scene, introducing canvas tents in place of wooden arenas, making it possible to have traveling circuses rather than stationary ones. He also became the first to add an elephant and other exotic animals to circus performances. In the mid-nineteenth century, acrobats such as tight-rope dancers became the center of attention, replacing the previously popular equestrians.
In 1871, the legendary Phineas Taylor Barnum aka P.T Barnum entered the circus scene. In partnership with William Cameron Coup, he formed P.T Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus, which included all kinds of animal and human oddities, traveling from one American city to another. Later, after Barnum had merged with James Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus, he also formed another merger with the Ringling Brothers, who were popular during the late nineteenth century. This circus grew such that it began attracting an audience of about 10,000 spectators. The circus represented the Gilded Age of America’s capitalism and industrialism. It soon became the country’s number one family entertainment, people flocking from near and far to feast their senses on the lavish entertainment. The “Greatest Show on Earth”, Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, unfortunately, closed in 2017.
American Circus Day timeline
The first circus performance on U.S. soil is held in Philadelphia.
Canvas tents are introduced by Joshuah Purdy Brown, replacing wooden arenas.
P.T Barnum creates “P.T Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus.”
Barnum & Bailey’s Circus closes down.
American Circus Day FAQs
When did P.T Barnum die?
P.T Barnum died on April 7, 1891, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Was “The Greatest Showman” true?
“The Greatest Showman” movie was loosely based on the life of P.T Barnum, though many elements were purely fictional.
Who was Tom Thumb?
Charles Sherwood Stratton, also known as Tom Thumb because of his 40-inch height, was a performer in P.T Barnum’s circus.
American Circus Day Activities
Visit a circus
There are lots of exciting circuses to visit! So what are you waiting for? Join the fun!
Learn about P.T Barnum
You can celebrate by learning about the ‘Greatest Showman.’ Page through P.T Barnum’s biography and see how one man impacted the history of the American circus.
Use the hashtag
Let everyone know what today is! Post a link to our article online and don’t forget to use the hashtag #americancircusday.
5 Most Daring Acts Of All Time
The ‘Peerless Lady Wing-Shot’
An excellent sharpshooter, Annie Oakley once shot a lit cigarette out of her husband’s mouth and also shot the edge of a playing card from 30 paces away!
The queen of aerial gymnasts
Lilian Leitzel was an acrobat who performed acrobatic tricks while hanging from Roman rings suspended 50 feet above the ground — all without a safety net!
The amazing tightrope walker
Charles Blondin was a tightrope walker who, on several occasions, balanced on a 1300-foot hemp rope stretched across the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls!
The World’s greatest bareback horse rider
May Wirth was an equestrian who could perform a forward flip on horseback and could also somersault from one moving horse to another.
The great lion tamer
Isaac Van Amburgh would dress up in Roman attire and perform daring acts with lions, tigers, and leopards — even letting them climb his back and shoulders!
Why We Love American Circus Day
Circuses are fun!
We love circuses because they are so much fun! Circuses provide good entertainment and attractive sights.
We celebrate innovation
This holiday is a classic reminder of American innovation and creativity. Though the circus was not originally from the U.S., the country took it to a grander and more successful level, adding innovations and unique styles.
We celebrate the brave acts
This holiday is a good way to shine some spotlight on the greatest circus performers of all time. Their brave and daring feats provided live entertainment and joy to millions of Americans for several decades.
American Circus Day dates