"Circus" in OED2; quotation 1839

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sun Aug 24 21:14:31 UTC 2014

            Circuses in early 19th C NYC involved trained horses, trick
riders, and acrobats.  No trained animals, other than the horses.

            It seems that the first "modern" circus was organized in London
by Philip Astley in 1770.  He had been a cavalry officer.  The first
American circus was organized by John Bill Ricketts, who performed before
President Washington.
            (I learn this from Earl Chapin May, *The Circus from Rome to
Ringling*, first published in 1931, but which I am reading in the Dover
reprint of 1963.)

            [a puff for Mr. Rickett's Circus] . . . a couple of hours spent
thus, from 5 to 7 once or twice a week, is a better way of passing time
than smoaking over the bottle and neglecting the fair sex, who are here
frequently seen in the highest perfection.  The exercise of walking to and
from the Circus adds health to the ladies, and gentlemen, who grace the
seats and form such a beautiful circuitous picture [that] is in itself a
sufficiently interesting spectacle to induce the citizens frequently to
visit the place. . . .
            N-Y D Gazette, September 4, 1793, p. 3, cols. 1-2

            Elephants and other exotic animals were displayed independently.

            The America has brought home an elephant, from Bengal, in
perfect health.  It is the first ever seen in America, and a very great
curiosity.  ***  This animal is sold for Ten Thousand Dollars. . . .
            American Minerva, April 16, 1796, p. 3, col. ?

             [see the elephant for 4 shillings, children 2 shillings]
            Argus, or Greenleaf’s New D Advertiser, April 25, 1796.

            [a male camel shown at Broadway & Beaver streets; 2 shillings
for grown-ups, 1 shilling for children; illustration]
            Diary, July 24, 1797, p. 3, col. 5

            We understand that the noble elephant, which was exhibited in
this town a short time since was shot and killed by some mischievous
villain, while entering the town of Alfred, in Maine, on Wednesday night
            N-Y E Post, July 30, 1816, p. 2, col. 5, quoting a Boston paper
of July 27

             America's first lion-tamer was Isaac Van Ambergh. active from
the 1830s.


On Sat, Aug 23, 2014 at 1:42 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> OED2 seems not to have a separate sense for "circus" specifically
> referring to exhibition of animals.  Sense 2.a speaks of human performers,
> other senses under "2. mod." and 3. & ff. are further afield.  Should it?
> 2.a has citations from 1792, 1806, and then 1860.  The following almost
> certainly refers to an animal exhibit.
> 1839 The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine, "Circus", 67.
> [Pesumably the article title; presumably on the first page of the article.]
> I have only seen a citation to this, not the Knickbocker text itself.  The
> citation is in Mizelle, Brett. "'Man Cannot Behold It Without Contemplating
> Himself': Monkeys, Apes and Human Identity in the Early American Republic."
> Explorations in Early American Culture, A Supplemental Issue of
> Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 66 (1999), page
> 171, note 41.
> William Bentley's Diary has two  instances of circus, 1809 Feb. 28 and
> 1810 March 29, but both clearly refer to exhibitions by human performers.
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

George A. Thompson
The Guy Who Still Looks Stuff Up in Books.
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998..

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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