This article examines the ways in which high-profile circuses of the long nineteenth century demonstrated a commitment to innovation that embraced many of the ideas and socioeconomic processes now generally accepted as belonging to or emerging out of modernity. The economic drives of capitalism, the development of the individual, and an enthusiastic embrace of new technology were all transmitted to vast audiences through the operations, performances, and linguistic declarations of the leading circuses of the period. Mobilizing the historiography of Thomas Frost and his first diachronic history of the British circus, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, first published in 1875, the author examines the ways in which leading nineteenth-century circuses in several Western industrialized nations embodied ideas about what it was to be modern, functioning as a metonym for modernity. The article proposes moreover that the circus’s demonstrations of modernity in action contributed to the genre’s immense popularity.
Early Popular Visual Culture Vol. 10, Issue 2, p. 169-185