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The first modern circus is believed to have been formed in 1768, by a former cavalryman, Philip Astley, who exhibited his horsemanship by putting his horses through their paces in a large ring or circle. This form of exhibition had become popular in England. 

Ever since his time the ring has been the central performance area of the circus. Astley embellished his London show with music, acrobats, tumblers, rope walkers, and a clown. In 1783, he built the first real circus in France. Soon circuses based on the Astley pattern were performing across the continent of Europe and in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The Circus in North America

John William Ricketts, a Londoner, brought the circus to the United States when he opened a show in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1793. He may also have introduced this entertainment to Canada, for a man named Ricketts had a circus in Quebec City in 1798. These were both one-ring, resident (non-traveling) circuses. In Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States, President George Washington was among the famous people who enjoyed the circus. Before the turn of the century, traveling French and Spanish troupes were enlivening the circus scene from Mexico to Canada. In the 19th century American circus, men began to add new touches to this European-born type of entertainment.

Circus History sites

Take a look at these interesting circus history sites, and have fun.

  • Colonial Wild Animal Exhibitions
    This site contains a listing of newspaper editions contain articles or ads about wild animals on exhibition in Colonial America.
  • American Circus
    This site has some information on the American circus.
  • The Circus Historical Society
    "Founded in 1939, the Circus Historical Society, Inc. (CHS) is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational organization. The Society's mission is to preserve, promote and share though education, the history and cultural significance of the circus and allied arts, past and present." --CHS about page
  • History of the Circus on PBS
    A brief history of the evolution of the modern-day circus, including how it evolved from an equestrian show to an American-style three-ring extravaganza.