Sunday, May 22, 2011

Big Top Images: The Circus comes to Canada

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Children of all Ages, step right up and prepare yourselves for the most Exhilarating Exhibition on Earth! Animals from the far-flung jungles of Africa!  Exotic specimens from around the globe!  We've got the Wild West, Far East, Southern Belles and Natives of the North, all displayed for your amusement and curiosity under the Big Top!

The Circus in popular conception seems to wedded to America, yet one only need to think of the Roman Circus Maximus, where chariot races, animal displays and mock battles were staged, to consider the long human fascination with spectacle.  The modern circus is attributed to a Brit by the name of Philip Astley, whose riding school in the late 18th Century grew to include clowns, domesticated animals, music and acrobatics. Only in 1792 would the circus cross the Atlantic to the new world.  A number of circus posters at Library and Archives Canada show that the circus was a popular event in the twentieth-century dominion.  It was often the lure of the foreign unknown which drew Canadians in droves to the Big Top.

Poster From 1935. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1980-84-68


Part of the allure of the circus was the exotic animals and people on display.  Elephants, camels, tigers and lions were used to amaze patrons.  A fascination with foreign animals has long appealed to circus-goers, yet with the rise of animal rights activism, the humane treatment of these performers are increasingly scrutinized. Cole Bros. Circus, still active today, was recently fined for violating the endangered species act.


Human performers were another part of the exotic draw.  The Cole Bros. Circus advertised itself as a "circus of all nations", where locals could observe cultures and costume from around the world.
Poster from 1939.  Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1980-84-159

Military display has always been a popular form of entertainment.  Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a form of Western circus and rodeo, featured theatrical battles, pitting cowboys versus Indians.  Gabriel Dumont was featured in the show after his role in the North-west Rebellion.  In the Great War, artillery pieces were brought back to Canada, and often featured in drives to recruit soldiers.  In a 1917 circus in Regina, a war exhibition featuring war posters and a captured German howitzer was free to all.
Glenbow Museum Archives.  NA-1574-6


Poster 1930. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1980-84-69


In international circuses, the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman was featured as a dashing international figure of adventure.  The mountie has long been the symbol of Canada abroad, especially in the entertainment industry.  In the form of the Wild West show, the black and white division of the colonial world were played out in pantomime, with  brave Mounties standing their ground against the circling savage Indians.
Many of the Circuses travelling in Canada appear to have been American shows, but there were also home-grown Canadian exhibitions as well.  The Garden Bros.  Circus was one Canadian circus, perhaps based in Saskatchewan where its posters were printed.  Canada's most infamous circus, Cirque de Soleil, was not founded until 1984, but Canadians have long been entertained by the foreign spectacle of the circus, alongside more domestic interests in fairs, rodeos, and agricultural exhibitions.  In a world before television and internet, Canadians sought to experience in person the foreign sights, smells, and sounds of the Big Top.
1943 Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1980-84-149
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