The Circus Age

Culture and Society under the American Big Top

By Janet M. Davis

358 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 8 color plates., 36 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5399-3
    Published: September 2002
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6149-3
    Published: October 2003
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7274-6
    Published: October 2003

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Awards & distinctions

A 2003 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

2004 Robert W. Hamilton Book Award

A century ago, daily life ground to a halt when the circus rolled into town. Across America, banks closed, schools canceled classes, farmers left their fields, and factories shut down so that everyone could go to the show. In this entertaining and provocative book, Janet Davis links the flowering of the early-twentieth-century American railroad circus to such broader historical developments as the rise of big business, the breakdown of separate spheres for men and women, and the genesis of the United States' overseas empire. In the process, she casts the circus as a powerful force in consolidating the nation's identity as a modern industrial society and world power.

Davis explores the multiple "shows" that took place under the big top, from scripted performances to exhibitions of laborers assembling and tearing down tents to impromptu spectacles of audiences brawling, acrobats falling, and animals rampaging. Turning Victorian notions of gender, race, and nationhood topsy-turvy, the circus brought its vision of a rapidly changing world to spectators--rural as well as urban--across the nation. Even today, Davis contends, the influence of the circus continues to resonate in popular representations of gender, race, and the wider world.

About the Author

Janet M. Davis is associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin.
For more information about Janet M. Davis, visit the Author Page.


"A fascinating book."--New York Times

"[A] fascinating, provocative history of a democratic form of public entertainment. . . . Compulsively readable. By meticulously scrutinizing individual circus acts and exhibits . . . [Davis] shows how circuses provided a vibrant, visceral forum for the era's cultural changes. . . . Smart and impressively researched, this is an important contribution to the literature of popular culture and U.S. cultural history."--Publishers Weekly

"A thoughtful commentary on a society caught between the stability of Victorian traditions and the arrival of an internationally involved and technologically modern America. Davis aptly conveys the circus's peculiar embodiment of, on the one hand, the conventional and moral and, on the other, the provocative and sensuous."--Times Literary Supplement

"An important and highly readable examination of the relationship between circus and US society at the beginning of the 20th century. . . . Davis did prodigious research and . . . places circus performance in historic and social context. . . . Strongly recommended for readers at all levels."--Choice

"Ground-breaking. . . . An ambitious work, important and well researched."--American Historical Review

"Davis shows with vivid examples and full contextualization the importance of the multi-ringed traveling American circus in both shaping and representing, in often amazing and sometimes subtle ways, American constructions of race, class, and gender."--Journal of American History

Multimedia & Links

Visit the author's department webpage for more information and a C.V.

Listen: Davis talks to BBC World Service program The Why Factor (4/20/2015, running time 17:30)

Listen: Davis joins WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show for the conversation "From Sideshow to the Big Top: The History of the Circus." (3/13/2015, running time 31:45)

Read: Davis's NY Times op-ed in response to Ringling Brothers retiring the elephants from their circus: "A Bittersweet Bow for the Elephant." (3/7/2015)