Artistes of Colour: Review

Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus
By Steve Ward, PhD
Published 2021 by Modern Vaudeville Press


There is so much to say and unpack and understand about race and ethnicity in circus that it’s hard to know where to begin this review. However, I suppose I will start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book very much. While it is not within the book’s purview to address all of circus’s complicated past, it focuses specifically on the Victorian Era (1837-1901 CE) in the UK. And a remarkable time that was.

By this period, modern Western “circus” was young-ish but already about 70 years old, as many consider its founding to be in 1768 by the equestrian and master of pageantry, Philip Astley. It all began with:

“Lavish hippodramas…, spectacular pageantry, and reconstructions of famous battles, all involving men and horses, pandered to [British] public nostalgia and enthusiastic nationalism. So the circus was to reinforce Britain’s view of itself in the world and its attitude towards foreigners and a perceived ‘evil’.”

Ward, p. 9

And British circus more or less continued to be that.

But as Ward describes through incredible individual stories, this fervor for the ‘exotic’ took on a different tone through this era of industrialization. British interest in other people became more curious, imaginative and daring, fueled by nascent scientific and ethnographic endeavors. While these interests largely continued to place light-skinned British people at the tippity top of the human hierarchy, they also enjoyed and celebrated independent performers from around the world. (Still horrid, but a sign of progress? Open for discussion.) Many of these performers became celebrities in their own right, owned and ran performance venues or troupes, ran in high social circles– but let’s pause here, because I think I might be making a very fun book sound kind of boring with my historical description.

Ward’s book is like following a detective down the winding paper trails of seemingly-mythical humans.

Each chapter is dedicated to a different person, or a different group of people operating under the same performance name, or a different group with a certain type of ‘exotic’ performance.

I found myself in alternating states of amused, infuriated, surprised, fascinated and horrified– each set of stories evokes a fresh aspect of performing in this time period. It is rarely predictable. I don’t want to give away any of the fun surprises.

It’s clear that Ward spent a lot of time researching; as a researcher myself, I doff my cap. These stories are built from the tiny puzzle pieces of show billings, court records, newspaper announcements, and (if you’re lucky) official records of births, deaths and marriages that together assemble the story of each artist. And oftentimes even these documents lie! Between the circus’ tendency for hyperbole, smear campaigns, a competitive market, experimental marketing and plain ole terrible record keeping, this book is an incredible feat and keeps you on your toes.

Nothing could stop these enigmatic performance pioneers of the 1800’s from striving for success; floods, fires, financial woes (of which there are many), pain, serious injuries, sudden deaths of beloved performers, violence, and multiple remarriages of varying success (generally by men, and often without evidence of the previous wife’s acquiescence). All of these obstacles seem to have plagued those whose stories are told within these pages.

And yet they carried on, show after show.

Few of the artists retired to a peaceful old age, as far as we can tell.

While we can’t go back and change the experiences of the past, I’m appreciative of authors shining light on our circus ancestors’ lives. It’s intriguing to put these eras, and consequently our own, into perspective; what privilege our generation enjoys in its current stage of multiculturalness and ease of international travel! In the world of the Victorian Era British, the circus was, for many ordinary people, one of the few times they would ever have access to see someone from Japan, or Morocco, or from anywhere that wasn’t ‘home’.

Artistes of Colour left me wanting more, in a good way. Things I would love to see more of:

  • Stories of women, female-presenting and trans artists. I understand the literature is scarce, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting it.
  • Perspectives from the artists themselves and how they experienced this environment, more than reconstructed perspectives based on available circumstantial evidence. Circus artists– that’s right, I’m talking to you— write down your current experiences! Future circademics will thank you.
  • More depth and stories on performers from India, China, Japan and South America, which are begun here but surely could have whole books dedicated to the subjects.

Bottom Line:

A very useful, entertaining and delightful read. I thank the author for bringing these stories to life.


*How do we decide which books to review? These book reviews are not paid by either the authors or publishers. We do sometimes receive a free book though, which is pretty great. We love books. We are not obligated to post any review, positive or otherwise; we post reviews because no one else seems to be doing so and we wanted to read circus book reviews. We hope they’re helpful to you as well. Some books were already part of our collection and we wanted to show them off. Some books we found in a small free library or the thrift store or bought ourselves. If you’d like us to review your book, or a book of your choosing, email us at circusdistrict@gmail.com.

Circademia

“How did circus get so awesome?
…and what else can it do??”

These are the questions of a circademic, and if you’ve ever pondered them, you’ve taken your first steps into a fun and often overlooked corner of circus life. Welcome to Circademia. 🌈🥳

Despite images of super strong athletes and feats of physical prowess, circus is also fundamentally nerdy.

one side of circus:
daring feats of strength and bravery
the other side of circus:
my evaluation roadmap for social circus, ACE Conference 2016

Have you seen a juggler map out a new toss pattern for others to learn? or an aerialist watch dozens of rehearsal videos to get a hand wrap just right? Every discipline has its debates, theories, histories, traditions, teaching methods, possible social impacts, and technical skills, not to mention the politics and changing perspectives of circus as a whole.

All of these combined comprise circademia, and the people who are fascinated by it are called circademics. Some might call it an academic pursuit, others might call it an addiction.

Watch out, you will want to proceed with some caution.

Once the door is opened, you’ll find circademia is still a Wild West–
any and every topic is fair game, and there aren’t
many regulatory bodies to check writers’ accuracy.

In the past decade or two, pioneers have gained traction by uniting their love of circus with established careers in various non-circus disciplines, which has brought much needed validity to the studies of health, injury prevention, body movement, therapeutic uses of circus, teaching methods, social and emotional uses, youth development, and social impact. In the spotlight these days we find circus history and culture, especially in regards to gender, race and political power, which is very exciting. Who knows what we’ll tackle next?

These researchers are integral to our everyday experience of circus, helping shape and guide how we perceive, how we perform and how we prepare for the future.

Why did we bring this topic up today? Because you may have already read some of our previous articles written by our in-house circademic, such as 1918: Circus & the Flu, and soon we’ll be launching an exciting series for circus book reviews. You’ll start to get curious sooner or later, and you’ll start to wonder, how do I find out more? And we’re already here for you. You can come back here anytime and fall into the rabbit hole of circus science and history and lore.

To get you started, here’s some really useful stuff:

ACE (American Circus Educators) Resources
Info and links to research projects that ACE has been involved with, including self-determination through circus arts and the Weikart Center’s research showing positive impact of circus programs on youth at-risk.

ACE Circus Research List

ACE Social Circus Toolkit
Provides access to resources that can help strengthen social circus programs, including an evaluation toolbox, research on social circus, help with raising money, and the Case for Social Circus.

Circademics on Facebook
Come chill with the gang and see what’s hot.

Circus Arts Research Platform
A very cool and extensive free, collaborative project between circus arts resource centers, circus networks and researchers around the world. Find a directory of scholars, map of resources, info on conferences, and citations of academic papers.

Cirque du Soleil’s Social Circus Map
Turns out, people like us are all over the world.

History
Circus Historical Society
Circopedia

FEDEC
Supports the development and evolution of training, education and creation in the field of circus arts in Europe.

Les Arts du Cirque
Encyclopedia of circus things, people and places. Might be only available in French.

Social Circus Research Index
A couple years ago, I wrote a master’s thesis on developing evaluation tools and how social circus can help prevent urban youths from adopting lives of violence. To do so, I gathered this list of research papers, which is now woefully incomplete, but still not a bad starting place.

Use Google Scholar
One of the best free tools to check out random, actually published circus research.

The Legend of the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft

(If you’re suddenly very confused, it might help to read last week’s post first, after, or at some random point in the middle of this.)

Once upon a dark and stormy night, in a nearby land, a child cried out in boredom. This cry was followed shortly by another more terrible cry… the sound of the child’s parent. The powers of these cries echoed across the land, floated up the Potomac, swung from tree to tree into the misty mountains, and eventually but surely reached the quiet abode of

THE GREAT SPIRITS OF JUGGLINGCRAFT

Caught in the midst of a fierce debate over the exact weight of the perfect juggling ball, the Great Grandmama Spirit and Grandson Spirit of Jugglingcraft suddenly fell silent, heads turned to better catch the echoes.

Their hearts were moved at these pitiful sounds of boredom, frustration, Zoom meetings and idle hands wafting up from the region. With great dedication (and relief for Grandson who had been losing the argument), the two great spirits and their loyal pup set to work.

Each juggling set was meticulously assembled of the finest, upcycled, recycled and regularly printed materials. Each individual juggling ball’s contents was measured precisely with kitchen spoons, and the final product was inspected with a master’s eye, infused with the joy of learning new things, and neatly tucked into a patented plastic-juggling-ball-bundle with a nifty set of beginner-friendly, easy-to-understand instructions, and sealed with a beautiful sticker. Each bundle was a work of art; a masterpiece.

When all the juggling bundles were finished with love and packed into the handy dandy carrying case from their favorite circus organization, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft rested. Grandmama Spirit invited Grandson Spirit to sit with her on the seat in front of their wooded abode.

“Grandson,” she said to him in a quivering voice thousands of years old, “you have worked hard and become a great master of the ancient jugglingcraft. These are skills and techniques that have been passed down since the very beginning of the universe itself. I am growing older, and it is time that you inherit our ways. We have reached the end of an era. There are new styles that need to be invented, new kinds of juggling balls to make, new ways of juggling heretofore unknown.” She paused to catch her breath.

“I want you to come with me on this trip,” Grandmama Spirit said. “Let us journey together to the District of Columbia and its surrounding lands to bring these good people the joy of juggling.” At these words, Grandson Spirit leapt up, filled with joy and pride.

“I will try hard, and I won’t let you down!” he said.

And so, off they went.

Down the mountain slopes, navigated the great forest…

…passed over treacherous landscapes…

…and through strange and foreign spaces.

After a long and difficult journey, they arrived at their first destination: a place of thoughts, hopes and dreams. Carefully avoiding any passerbys, the pair of Spirits carefully placed one of the lovingly crafted juggling kits for a curious soul to find.

This was only the beginning though. They had a lot of work ahead of them, and a lot of distance to travel. There were many curious things in this world, and they tried their best to stay focused on the task at hand. Mostly.

Using a variety of stealthy transportation options, they soon arrived at the next of many, many, many Little Free Libraries– the best method for bringing the joy of juggling to all people of the DMV! With great secrecy, the Spirits secreted away this bundle of juggling goodness into the Little Free Library.

After this victory, they went on to hide bundles of juggling balls in Little Free Libraries all across the District, Maryland and Virginia (but not too far out, because they were traveling by scooter after all). From neighborhood to neighborhood, east to west to north to south, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft journeyed to bring the joy of juggling to the people of the District.

Grandson Spirit learned all the magical ways to travel, to bring a juggle bundle to even the most populated areas without being seen, and most importantly, to make sure his hand wasn’t caught in the door when Grandmama Spirit was in a rush.

After a long day, their work was finally done. The joy of juggling had been brought far and wide, and now that Grandson Spirit knew the way, he could continue to journey down the mountain and through the woods and take the S2 bus to deliver new juggling ball kits throughout the dark and cold DC winter to children and their parents. Because juggling is for everyone: old and young, thrill-seekers and patient perseverers, the easily bored and the hyperactive.

With an empty carrying sack and light hearts, the Grandmama and Grandson Spirits of Jugglingcraft made their way home, and celebrated with a well-earned relaxation.

They all lived happily ever after.

THE END.


And with that oddity,
dear friends, we’d like to bid you happy holidays,
a great Hanukah, merry Christmas, cheery Kwanza, delicious Ōmisoka,
and a brilliant New Year with Peace and Circus for all,

Christian & Lottie


Behind the Scenes Making of:
The Legend of the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft

You can read more about the Free Juggling Ball Project in last week’s post. Special thanks to local artists, Pablo and Rodin, for their beautiful masks and embodying the Spirits of Jugglingcraft.

*Please note: The 5 members of the Jugglingcraft Project operated as an isolated “bubble” before and during the production of this project, so you won’t see any facemasks in these photos while we’re indoors. We bubbled to keep us safe and you safe while we assembled your juggling ball kits. While all kits did additionally sit for at least two weeks after assembly and before distribution, we recommend using alcohol to wipe down the surfaces before use. It’s always a good idea to make sure your equipment is clean, even in normal times.


Found a juggling ball in your nearby Little Free Library?

A mysterious thing is occurring across the city…

Juggling ball kits are appearing in Little Free Libraries! How can this be?

On an exceptionally rainy weekday evening earlier this fall, a clandestine operation was taking place in Takoma. The infamous Thom Wall, of Philadelphia’s Modern Vaudeville Press, ran across the street hugging a giant black trash bag nearly bursting with *dramatic music plays* empty plastic balls. He deposited the bag into the open trunk of a nondescript white vehicle, and ran back to gather an additional box of Supplementary Materials. Meanwhile, the owner of the nondescript white vehicle began to plot a secret route to acquire the valuable Ball Filling Supplies. Thus was the beginning of the Great DC Juggling Ball Project! *more dramatic music*

At least, it happened more or less like that.

As the Modern Vaudeville Press explains,

Thanks to an incredible donation from the Flea Theater in New York City, Modern Vaudeville Press has found itself in a unique position — we have supplies to make some 3,500 juggling balls using mostly upcycled materials. With this shell donation, we can make hundreds of juggling kits to give away at extremely low cost / free to community programs all along the East Coast.

And we just had to get involved. Who knows which of these lucky finders may become the world’s next famous juggler? We requested help from some local friends, and have so far assembled and distributed 50 free juggling kits for the joy and amusement of people of all ages across the DC area.

Who are those juggling-ball-assembling friends, you may ask? Why, the Great Spirits of Jugglingcraft, of course. Next week, you can follow their story as they made their magical visit down to DC.

And if you haven’t found a set yet, don’t worry.

Maybe the Spirits of Jugglingcraft will hear your plea, descending from their foresty mountain home to leave a kit sometime this winter….

Spirits of Jugglingcraft prepare juggling balls

Final Part of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(Psst: check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story. )

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“Admiral Dot,” Circus Midget, Is “Flu” Victim

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 27, 19181

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Let’s round down this discussion on the days of the 1918 pandemic by returning to the biggest question: 

How did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic reshape American traveling circus? 

I doubt anyone could give a 100% accurate answer, but it is certain that this played a crucial role ushering in the truly magnificent and enormous years of mid century circus — although not necessarily in the way you might think. It certainly wasn’t the angle I expected  when I started this project. 

At the turn of the century, American traveling shows were no small side show. With the growing adoption of new technologies like the telephone and a web of interconnecting train lines that began in the 1870’s, circus shows boomed. By 1911, over 20 circuses were traveling by rail all across the country.2 The circus was a symbol of the progress and mobility of the new modern world.

What about that combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show: surely these circuses came together due to the devastating impact of influenza? 

This question is more complicated than a simple ‘yes/no’ (as is often the case with significant diseases in human history). 

Influenza did play a huge part. 

The new Age of the Cinema surprisingly also dealt a blow, as well as the declining numbers of the actual Ringling brothers. 

The biggest factor though, was probably the war. 

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Let’s look at the big picture. Little evidence of flu rates among circus performers has survived the passage of time, but considering the conditions, it’s hard to imagine no one was ill. 

Our current standards of cleanliness certainly were not a feature of the early 1900’s circuses. Despite the outdoors living and constant travel, cleanliness for many performers and the circus children consisted of two water buckets and a sprinkler of cold water on a sunny day in the back lot.2

These large shows packed into train cars were, in fact, quite packed. “On the circus, everybody’s crowded together like candy in a gumball machine,” remarked performer Merle Evans.3 A 1919 pamphlet from the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show noted that “it is not unusual for 5,000 pancakes to be baked and eaten in a single breakfast,” which– hyperbole or not — is a lot of pancakes for a lot of people.2 And for all these people, there were few medical staff. A note from the 1950’s indicated that the huge, combined shows had only one doctor and sometimes a nurse for the entire crew.2

It is possible though that performers didn’t see high infection rates. They were known for being in robust physical health, spent their days outside in the open air, and were generally isolated from main society as their city-on-wheels rolled its way from town to town. It’s hard to know from our perspective today, since so little written evidence remains. 


Small aside: Who’s most likely to blame for this gap in written and photographic journaling of circus activities between 1905ish to the dazzling rebirth of circus in the late 1930’s? The movies, of course! The first nickelodeon theaters made their debut in the early 1900s, followed by silent film theaters in the 1920’s, and America was hooked. The cinema was the first real competitor to the circus for America’s intense curiosity and fascination with the exotic, and there was a distinct wane in circus audiences during this time.2


Unfortunately for the men of the Ringling family, they were struggling with different health problems. During the 34 years the Ringlings had toured, there had been as many as 7 brothers handling the top management posts. By 1918, most had passed away. John, Charles and Alf T. were the only ones still active in circus operations, and Alf T. was in failing health. There simply weren’t enough of them anymore to manage the behemoth circus.3

In fact, there weren’t enough men in general. 

With the advent of World War I (1914-18), thousands of able bodied men enlisted for military service and other thousands went to work manufacturing products for the war effort — including a substantial chunk of circus folk. Without the primarily young male workforce, the tasks of heavy lifting and keeping the circus rolling was left to women, older men and those physically unable to serve. Acts were scarce, too, with many of the performers serving the war efforts and European acts impossible to acquire.4

Business expenses kept rising and certain essential supplies were increasingly scarce. In July 1917, already a year before influenza, Charles Ringling wrote in a letter that he feared shortages in essential foodstuffs, such as flour and starch, which were subject to rationing.

“[C]osts are way beyond anything ever experienced before,” he wrote, “and difficulties of transportation are serious. We would be satisfied for the present year and the next to be able to keep our business running on the same plane as in past years without anticipating any very large profits.”4

Also, under the new Army Appropriation Act from President Wilson, the United States Railroad Administration acquired the essential power of determining locomotive usage and routes. And the Ringling Bros traveling circus just wasn’t a good enough cause to justify the 8 locomotives it needed for its two shows in 1918. The government could only make available half that number of locomotives, meaning that one show would have been unable to tour.

With a country at war and American culture rapidly changing, the influenza pandemic was the last straw, at least for the Ringling Bros. As the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show, the two major circus companies could combine talent, consolidate supplies, and ultimately travel much more lean, which made the whole operation more profitable. In this way, the lasting effects of 1918 was also the first straw of the next age of circus. As stated in The Circus

“For a nation traumatized by war and sickness, the new [combined circus] venture, jam-packed with all charismatic stars, dramatic music, incredible thrills, and pageantry of two-shows-in-one, was a nice needed jolt of excitement.”2

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Citations

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 27). “Admiral dot,” circus midget, is “flu” victim. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922). https://search.proquest.com/docview/174430124?accountid=14696

2. Dominique Jando, Linda Granfield, and Fred Dahlinger. (2010). The Circus. Taschen. 

3. Dean Jensen. (2013). Queen of the Air [uncorrected proof]. A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus. Crown Publishers New York. 

4. Jerry Apps. (2012). Ringlingville USA : The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzYxMzAyMl9fQU41?sid=0750fb2d-f83a-4cbe-9bce-d5eac7586113@sdc-v-sessmgr03&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1

Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu

(I probably shouldn’t start with this, but I felt you needed to know. Circus District, with infinite stealth, in the pouring rain, in a town near you, just pulled off a not-at-all-illicit transfer of the Opaque. Trash Bag. Full of Juggling. Balls. Direct from the trunk of the infamous dealer, Thom Wall. These sweet goodies might just start appearing in a little free library down the street from you. Maybe. Who knows? Stay tuned for more to come in the next few weeks.)

In looking for the stories of American traveling circus during the 1918 influenza, what I found most striking was the information that was missing from the logs of history. For a start,

What was the flu epidemic like for circus folk? 

Their voices are so far entirely missing from the newspaper articles and documents of that era. Circus folk are treated as outsiders in these records; their world unfathomable by the average American citizen. For us today, we have all seen the changes this coronavirus pandemic has had on our personal work experiences and social expectations– similarly, what lasting effects, if any, did this have on the way circuses were run and the way they traveled?

We’re left to wonder at the precautions they may or may not have taken to protect audiences and performers. Also, a question that has really been nagging at me…

How many circus people were ill?

And who cared for them? 

Maybe circus medics or each family administered to their people on the go, or maybe the ill were left in each town to be cared for there. How did the circus folk feel about their role in the influenza epidemic as ‘probable disease spreaders’? 

I apologize for keeping on the question train here, but what happened to all the artists of yesteryear who, after finishing a successful final performance in Waycross, Georgia, are told by Charles Ringling that this is the last show ever, they won’t be hired next year, and they certainly weren’t going back to winter quarters with him? They were on their own. What did they do that winter, and where did they go? To my knowledge, most circus folk then were not likely to pivot from the circus to pick up a career in higher ed entrepreneurship, or any of the other directions that are possible for people nowadays. 

While much remains unanswered, some of these questions we might be able to tackle with the resources at hand. To start: 

Did the circus bring Influenza with it, as the Governor feared? 

We started on this question in Part 1, but the evidence would indicate that the circus folk were more likely to catch influenza in Charleston, South Carolina than to be carrying it. 

Charleston had a robust public health and hospital infrastructure, but a woefully low health budget that was only about half the amount of similarly sized American cities like Atlanta. On September 16th, 1918 (which, for reference, was after Ringling Bros announced it was coming, and before the Governor tried to keep it out),  the first cases of influenza were reported among sailors at the nearby Charleston Naval Training Station. The Navy worked quickly to keep sailors away from citizens and to control the disease, and perhaps they were successful. Regardless, other outbreaks were soon reported around the city. Also, did I mention a typhoid epidemic was raging in the city as well at this time? 1 

And what about: 

If the Governor of a State wasn’t even able to keep the circus from entering, where did the real power lie in these times? 

According to the headlines, the Governor had to negotiate with the Ringling Bros circus to keep them out of South Carolina, and even then, he only managed to limit their tour. The Board of Health flat-out refused to take part in this whole business, declaring that it would be “impossible” to keep all of the traveling circuses out of the state. 2 

I just want to re-emphasize this: the government of a state felt they did not have the power to refuse entry to all the circuses that would come across their borders, and had to negotiate with these nomadic entertainers hustling around the country by train and by wagon. An opinion piece in the Charleston News and Courier declared,

“Education and religion, it seems, are esteemed by the board of health on a par with theatres and emphatically of less importance than the dollar of the circus.” 3

Strange times, indeed. 

There’s so many unanswered questions from these stories, and I hope that by Part 3, I’ll be able to answer a few more of them for you. (If you have any good resources or people I should talk to, email me at circusdistrict@gmail.com!) 

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Citations

(old habits die hard, though they do grow rusty)

1. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-charleston.html

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.6080flu.0001.806

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 30). Calls for Opening of Local Churches. Charleston News and Courier. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.8860flu.0001.688