#ThrowbackThursday: Step Right Up, Step Right Up!

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

Drawing from 1890

It’s June!  You know what that means – summer, nice weather, and outdoor fun!  That thought, and the potential financial gains from getting customers to travel from near and far in the nice weather to see his shows, must have at least crossed P.T. Barnum’s mind when he decided June 2, 1835 would be a good date to kick off his very first circus tour of the United States.  The circus has long been a staple of American and European entertainment, but it also stands out as an early career opportunity for women (and people of color and people with disabilities or physical abnormalities) in the United States as well as a public example of women’s changing roles around the turn of the 20th century.  From bearded ladies to snake charmers to bareback riders to high fliers, the circus was one place where women could escape the social and moral norms of the Victorian era and earn a living doing it.

Irene Montgomery, 1920

One of the most famous circus performers during the early 20th century was Irene Montgomery.  Montgomery, known as one of the best performers in the circus business and “the only stellar equestrienne in the memory of living man who is equally at home in the air,” was both a bareback rider and a high flying act doing tricks on a swinging ladder way up in the air.  Women like Montgomery often performed in multiple acts in a circus and they had to be in top physical shape in order to successfully complete their daring feats.  As such, these women were also on the brink of a new trend in American society – physical fitness for women.  During the 1800s and early 1900s, physical fitness in a woman was seen as a negative quality.  To some, this new, physical female type was a danger and threat to society.  Doctors, scientists, and even President Teddy Roosevelt did not know what to make of women who led active lifestyles.  Women were supposed to be demure examples of domesticity, not muscular and active.  Around the turn of the 20th century, female athleticism was linked, by both opponents and proponents, with the “New Woman” of the Suffrage Movement, traveling around the world, climbing mountains, and, yes, performing in the circus.  One of the major shifts toward female athleticism started in the 1830s, with an anti-corset movement that called for less restrictive clothing so women’s bodies could be free to move around.  That movement gained precedence in the following decades and, by the late 1800s, images of female athletes in much freer flowing outfits were becoming a regular sight.  Circus women, such as Montgomery, were promoted in posters and the media for their physical prowess.

A circus performer with her horse, 1909

Women were actually front and center in many circuses’ promotional materials.  This attested to women’s changing, more public roles in society, while at the same time often adhered to contemporary mores.  In the 1800s and early 1900s, American circuses were thought of as an unrefined, improper form of entertainment, especially when compared to the much more respectable European circuses.  Circus promoters often used women as the face of their company in an effort to make their shows seem more proper.  This happened so much so that women appeared to dominate circus troops, while only actually representing a fraction of the total employees.  By trying to make their shows seem more respectable, however, female stars were frequently positioned in very demure or domestic settings, a complete contrast to how they actually were in the show.  They portrayed female bareback riders petting their horses, instead of riding them.  They showed the women posing with their husbands (from either an actual marriage or circus “marriage”).  They even went so far as to cut their heads off one photograph and paste it onto another photograph of a different woman with a less muscular body.  While a circus woman felt a sense of freedom many of her contemporaries did not experience, it was also regularly emphasized in the media that female circus performers never traveled without a husband, parent, or brother, so as for the circus to not seem immodest.  If a woman was not married, the circus company often created a fictional marriage or reported that she was close to marriage.  While circuses promoted men with a rags-to-riches story of how they made it to circus stardom, the women almost always came from a well-off, well-known, established performing family.

Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory using the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday.

Sources: US Census Bureau, Herald-Journal,

All photos from the Library of Congress

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