Agency through Otherness: Portraits of Performers in Circus Route Books, 1875-1925

Agency Through Otherness: Portraits of Performers in Circus Route Books, 1875-1925


The circus was the largest form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens of circuses traveled across Canada and the US each year, bringing to audiences new musical forms, exotic animals, and daring performers from around the world. Circus route books were published at the end of a show’s season, often detailing the towns and dates played, ticket sales, listings of circus personnel, and unusual events. These are unique primary source materials for historical research and insight into the daily lives and business activities of circus employees. Find out more about the collection and project here.

In this exhibit, we highlight circus performers identified in the route books during the period of 1875-1925. Specifically, those who were  relegated as outcasts of society; performers without which the circus would not be successful. The circus marketed the display of difference and an alternative reality as entertainment. Sensationalized and invented notions about diversity, strangeness, and abnormality in people spread as the circus expanded across the country. In reversing this constructed narrative, the exhibit counters against this space the circus presented. We examine how these individuals found agency through the lens of otherness and the performance in a world that continuously sought to oppress them. It was necessary to visit hard histories of inhumanity to consider the complex experiences of the performers. 

During this period, America was shaping its cultural identity and as a country with territorial expansion. The performers inhabited a place with compounding conflicts as the backdrop: Native American genocide and removal, the question and end of slavery, competition for labor, immigration, paternalism and prejudice in race and gender relations, ableism, and the moral reform movement. These events, the aftereffects, and attitudes impacted these individuals profoundly and the lives they chose. It is our hope we impart their narratives to reveal moments of joy, resilience and resistance within the liminal space.

In examination of the American historical story, it is difficult not to observe the contemporary parallels in the 21st century. The core of the story is the same and the struggle for social progress and justice is ongoing. Tension continually exists and must be addressed generation after generation.

Note from the authors: The narrative of this exhibit explores the harmful stereotypes inflicted on historically underrepresented people including Black, Chinese, Japanese, Native American and women populations. It also references abuses perpetuated under the ideals of expansionism, white supremacy, traditional gender roles, and capitalism. The exhibit contains depictions of people representative of the cultural context in which these circus route books were created. Much of the language and imagery used in the Circus Route Books collection and other primary sources is offensive and unacceptable. This historical language has been transcribed in its original form in order to accurately convey past ideologies and reveal past experiences. Whenever possible, appropriate terminology is used in the description of these materials.

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