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


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.


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. )


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

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 27, 19181


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. 


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



1. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 27). “Admiral dot,” circus midget, is “flu” victim. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922).

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.

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!) 



(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.

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post.

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 30). Calls for Opening of Local Churches. Charleston News and Courier.

1918: Circus & the Flu

(Looking for Part 2 of Christian’s Covid Chronicles? That’s for next week!)

Circus folk are a resilient sort. We’re used to looking at the world upside down, or from a precarious height. Many of us are putting that adaptability to use in a less fun way this year, grappling with new methods of circusing with respect to the current pandemic. 

But this isn’t the first time our community has had to deal with some crazy world changes. I found myself wondering, 

How did circus performers and managers from the early golden years
of American traveling shows deal with their epidemic? 

What was it like for Circus during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918?

Long story short, the circus world turned on its head. 

Before we dig into the details, let’s start with a very, very brief backstory.  The Flu of 1918 — also called the Spanish Influenza, which (side note) annoyed the Spanish probably as much as the Chinese flu references of today — was first identified in the spring of 1918. By fall, it had swept across the United States. The country was also at war, having entered World War I about a year before. By the time the pandemic ended in November, an unbelievable 675,000 Americans had died from the flu alone. From beginning to end, it was about 4 months’ time.1 Worldwide, the flu infected approximately one-third of the population, killing 50 million people.2

Backstory finished. On we go:

Let’s roll back time to August 1918, along the east coast. Tree leaves were just beginning to turn brilliant colors, the long days of summer were hopefully nearing an end, and —  before the average citizen had become particularly worried about being in a crowd — circuses were on the road and in full spirits. The early 1900’s were the beginning of the American traveling tent shows’ most robust days. Spectators were just being introduced to the delight of unending trains rolling in alongside crowds of cheering children, of the massive parades through downtown, of the plumage and the glitter and the snap of the flags over large white tents rising up by the hands of circus folk and rube volunteers side by side. 

Unfortunately, influenza was also on the road and gaining steam in August. From Atlanta to Chicago to Philadelphia, places of amusement began to close, while cities scrambled to keep citizens safe. Much like today, some folks in the entertainment industry resisted change or made jokes about the situation, but in general the industry expressed a willingness to take whatever action the health boards requested. In some places, empty theatres were even converted into makeshift morgues, with nurses embalming bodies on the stage. (Read Thom Wall for more on this amazing story.)2 

Meanwhile, the circus marched on, headed south and west as the weather leaned into fall. 

In September, the Ringling Bros circus had begun to feel the effects of the flu scare to a greater extent as the situation deteriorated.1 On September 14th, The Charleston Evening Post announced with delight that the Ringling Bros show would be coming to the city for the first time in a decade, with no mention of the epidemic.3 Just a few days later on September 21st however, it also announced that the Governor of South Carolina was less excited about the prospect; he had asked the State board of health to prevent Ringling’s show from touring at all.4

Newspaper clipping: Governor Moves to Stop Circus
Governor Moves to Stop Circus

Governor Manning stated today that he felt there was real danger of the circus spreading the disease over the State. Besides he feels that it will be a great demoralization of labor at this time when it is essential that every body should be at work. There is cotton in the fields that must be picked and there is other work that must be done…. It would be hard to estimate the loss that would result to the State, the Governor thinks, from the attendance of farm labor on the circus and consequent loss of a day’s work.4

If I may make a side note here lest we forget about the war abroad: this piece was followed by an article detailing the British attacks on German forces near Mont St. Quentin in France.4

A week later, The Charleston Evening Post predicted that the “Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out” in anticipation of the order from the health board that would be issued later that evening.5 But lo, a plot twist! The next morning, readers awoke to this headline: 


The board of health has decided not to act in the matter in any way. Dr. Hayne [the State health officer] said that the board felt that they could not issue a discriminatory order against one tented show unless they included all tented shows, which would be almost impossible to do.6 [emphasis added]

Newspaper clipping: Tomorrow Circus Comes to Town
Tomorrow Circus
Comes to Town

The Charleston Evening Post went on to say:

The whole matter seems to be one of labor and not of health. Dr. Hayne said that the board did not feel that it should act in the matter inasmuch as the United States railways were hauling the circus over the country and the United States Public Health Service did not feel that it could act. The board has left the matter entirely with Governor Manning.6

As the final, resounding confirmation from The Charleston News and Courier on September 30th, the headline stated, “Circus To Show Here On Friday,” although the Governor had at least negotiated the tour down to just two days.7

Were Governor Manning’s fears well founded, and was the circus carrying influenza with it as it traveled? It’s hard to say now in hindsight, but it seems like times were already troubled in the state. We’ll talk more about this in Part 2 of 1918: Circus & the Flu.

By October, circus shows around the country had been told they were not welcome.

In many towns, they were quarantined in place and townsfolk were prohibited from setting foot on show grounds. Even in places that they were not quarantined, they often faced townsfolk who were too afraid of contracting something from the big crowds to attend.1 

In a few days, the traveling season ended for nearly every circus across the country:  

– last week of September – 
  • On Sept 28, Sells Floto Circus closed in Walsenburg, Colorado.1
– first week of October –
  • Following the aforementioned negotiations with the Governor, the Ringling Brothers paraded through the streets in Charleston, South Carolina on the morning of Oct 4. The newspaper remarked how “All Small Boys and Fathers Will Wake Up Early to Miss Nothing” of the 1000 animal menagerie, the street parade, “the giraffe twins who must be careful to not get a sore throat because their necks are so long” and a troupe of elephants dressed as surgeons and Red Cross nurses.8,9  Ringling Bros had agreed to limit performances to Oct 4 and 5th only.9  
  • On Oct 5, the Charleston Board of Health ordered all public spaces to close, including all public and private schools, churches, theatres, movie houses, and any/all public gatherings and meetings, including the circus.9 
  • Despite the 3 days of cancellations in Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, Ringling Bros still had to feed 1200 employees, not to mention the menagerie.1
– second week of October – 
  • By Oct 7, Charles Ringling had had enough. He placed a notice on the front door of the cook house stating that the circus would close the next day (not one for advanced notice, I guess) in Waycross, Georgia. This notice also stated that the show would be moving to new winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut rather than the usual Baraboo, Wisconsin.1 Why the different quarters? More on that in a minute. 
  • The Walter L. Main Circus shut down on Oct 8, a week ahead of schedule.1 
  • Ringling Bros World’s Greatest Shows gave its final performance ever on Oct 8th in Waycross. Local officials had attempted to cancel it, however a small crowd had shown up anyways and so the show went on. After the performance, Charles Ringling went into the dressing tent and told the performers that he was not in a position to hire any of them for the next season (really, what’s with this guy?). Also, this show would be permanently disbanded; he and another circus owner had struck a deal and next season, the new show would tour as the combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.1 
  • The next day, Charles Ringling paid off the employees, sold over 100 horses and ponies to local residents for prices ranging from $75 – $175, and took off for the winter quarters he would be sharing with his new partners. 1
– still the second week of October – 
  • Meanwhile, the Barnum & Bailey show arrived in Houston for its last stop of the season. 
  • By this time, the influenza was in 77 Texas counties and the state had already banned all public gatherings.1 On Oct 9, the acting mayor (the actual mayor was ill with influenza) enforced the ban on public gatherings, and the city began a 17-day quarantine.10 The circus left Houston a few days later on Oct 11, although it is not clear how they were allowed to leave with the quarantine in place.1 I imagine it would have been hard to stop circus trains then.
  • Maybe though, it was not a very effective quarantine, because even though the city was on lockdown, city leaders still allowed Gentry’s Famous Dog & Pony Show to arrive in town for a 5-month stint.10 I wonder what sort of reception they received….
  • Also on Oct 9, the John Robinson Ten Big Shows arrived in Norfolk, Virginia and were not allowed to unload, so they moved on to Raleigh, North Carolina several days ahead of schedule. After missing 6 dates, the owners decided it was time to close up shop and the staff were paid off. They packed up the rest of the circus and shipped off to their Peru winter quarters.1  
  • The Sparks Circus closed in Laurinburg, North Carolina on Oct 9 as well, and headed to their less attractive, but significantly more accessible, also-in-North-Carolina Salisbury  winter quarters.1
  • Yankee Robinson closed at Stuttgart, Arkansas.1 
– third week of October –
  • Al G. Barnes arrived in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, Oct 13 and found the city under quarantine, like all the rest of the state. Both of the next cities in Louisiana canceled their upcoming shows. With no hope of reopening, he connected his advertising cars and a private Pullman to a locomotive and left that day for home. The Greatest Show on Earth began the trip back to California, only stopping when necessary to feed and water the animals.1 
  • Texas’ statewide quarantine also caught up the Gentry Bros and the Christy Hippodrome Shows.1 
  • The same day and states away, the Cole Bros circus closed in Corinth, Michigan. 
  • Wrapping up a 6-day engagement in Atlanta, Georgia, the Sun Bros discovered they were quarantined there and not allowed to leave. Pete Sun immediately took out an advertisement in The Billboard and sold most of the property in the next several weeks.1  
  • Ironically, Atlanta officials still allowed the massive Southeastern Lakewood Fair to continue on Oct 16, since events held outdoors were considered safer. Visitors had to wear masks, which The Constitution declared would make the event look like a “great harem” (in their opinion, this was a bad thing). Twenty thousand people attended to enjoy the featured bands, circus acts, horse races, fireworks and movie stars — maybe this is where some of Pete Sun’s property went to live its next life.11 

Twelve full shows closed in the course of about 3 weeks. And these are mostly just the ones along the east coast. 

By November, the pandemic had subsided. The New York Clipper reported at the end of the year that 1918 was one of the most challenging seasons in circus history.1  Showbiz in general had ground to halt, and even as things began to open up again, there were residual feelings of nerves.2

As the holidays rolled around, all the circuses were in winter quarters, there were no more cases of the influenza, and American soldiers were planning for their voyages home. The world was beginning to be “normal” again. 

There was a ray of hope for circus, too: with few exceptions, each of the circus owners who completed the 1918 season returned in 1919. Some had radically changed, like the newly combined Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey shows, and in some cases, the power shifted to favor rising circuses that had made good financial decisions during the pandemic.1 

All of this history feels a bit odd nowadays in the wake of a post-Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey world.

How many of the show names above have been lost to history, or at least to common knowledge? Shows don’t travel in the same way, don’t parade when they arrive, and don’t need half the town to volunteer setting up and breaking down the tent. The circuses of those days were a scrappy, resourceful and shrewd sort; we can see it in how quickly they pivoted, weighed whether to cut the season or push on, head to winter quarters early or cut losses and sell off the property. Just a couple days of missed shows had huge economic impacts on these mini-nomadic-cities. 

Circuses and circus-y arts today retain that same spirit in spades, even if our pandemic takes longer and even if our pivots involve moving to a virtual space instead of winter quarters. Circus folk have always been remarkably resilient, even in the most turbulent times. 

I do have to wonder though… how would Al G. Barnes or Charles Ringling have leveraged Zoom, Instagram or Facebook, if they’d had such tools then?



(Much thanks to the fantastic University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia and The Circus Historical Society.)

1. Berry, Chris. (2018). The Circus and the Pandemic of 1918. BANDWAGON, Issue 4.

2. Wall, Thom. (2020). Showbiz & The Spanish Flu: Lessons from Last Century’s Pandemic. CircusTalk.

3. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 14). Ringling Bros. Circus Coming. The Charleston Evening Post.

4. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post.

5. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 26). Circus Probably Will Be Kept Out. The Charleston Evening Post.

6. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Circus Problem Up To Governor. The Charleston Evening Post.

7. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 30). Circus To Show Here On Friday. Charleston News and Courier.

8. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post.

9. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. (unknown). Charleston, South Carolina Essay. Influenza Encyclopedia.

10. Knapp, Gwendolyn. (2020, Jun 9). The Similarities Between the Coronavirus Pandemic and the 1918 Flu in Houston. Houstonia.

11. Hallerman, Tamar. (2020, Apr 16). For coronavirus-hit Atlanta, echoes of 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.–regional/for-coronavirus-hit-atlanta-echoes-1918-spanish-flu-pandemic/QIC48abnRUJQvapSKAUIUJ/

Images (in order of appearance)

1. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 21). Governor Moves To Stop Circus. The Charleston Evening Post.

2. Unknown Author. (1918, Sep 27). Tomorrow Circus Comes To Town. The Charleston Evening Post.


June 4th @ 4 p.m.

In the future, everyone will be famous.

In the aerial dance production POP!, UpSpring Aerial Lab uses pop art as inspiration for new work in aerial fabric, aerial sling, dance trapeze, mini lyra, and poi. Featuring work inspired by Andy Warhol, Marisol, Roy Lichtenstein, May Wilson, Claes Oldenburg and more. Tickets $20 adults, $10 children and seniors at Children 2 and under free in an adult’s lap.

Concession sales at this event will benefit arts programs at Mount Rainier Elementary School. Proceeds from ticket sales help UpSpring to purchase new equipment and supplies to keep our students safe.

Joe’s Movement Emporium
3309 Bunker Hill Road
Mount Rainier, MD 20712

C4: An explosive weekend of Circus Circus Circus Circus!

April 27-30, all day

C4: An explosive weekend of Circus Circus Circus Circus!

Come join us for a 4-day explosion of CIRCUS FUN April 27-30, 2017. Monarca in Flight is hosting circus artists from all over for workshops in Aerials, German wheel, Acro partnering, Rigging, and more! Instructors include Laura Witwer, Chris Delgado, Liz Bliss, Jessica John, Rebecca Freund, Anthony Oliva, and Todd Spiering. for details

Monarca in Flight
3431-F Carlin Springs Road
Falls Church, VA, 22041