Book review: “Battle for the Big Top”

The elephants were always your favorites.

You’d practically grown up with pictures of them, but seeing them in person…? They were bigger than you thought they’d be. Enormous. Gigantic, and yet, so quietly distinguished. Your first circus experience was memorable because of them, and in “Battle for the Big Top” by Les Standiford, you’ll see how pachyderms and others came to the tent.

While it’s true that the circus was big entertainment for Americans in past generations, the origins of the circus can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when “royals and wealthy nobles… were fond of keeping exotic beasts…” 

In the early New World, though, just having a horse was “a luxury” and horsemanship was seen as a talent worthy of an audience. It was profitable, too; in 1793, George Washington’s cousin constructed an eight-hundred-seat arena at his riding academy, in order to present a program that would later look like a twentieth-century circus.

In 1806, pachyderms were added to the regular circus line-up by an Italian troupe in New York. Canvas tents became the venue of choice for circuses of all sizes in 1825. Soon after, big cats were added to the circus’s normal line-up, and a tank was invented that could haul a hippo. The first circus parade from railroad to field happened in May, 1837; by the mid-1800s, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists had joined the troupe, and an elliptical tent was invented that allowed for the famed three rings.

Though most of the circuses at that time were smaller, James Bailey, who had literally run away to join the circus as a boy, was busy building an empire. When his elephant gave birth, it caught the attention of P.T. Barnum, who was intrigued and impressed that Bailey turned down his offer to purchase the calf. Despite a longtime competitiveness, they combined their assets in 1881 to become a mega-circus, The Barnum & Bailey Circus.

And then there were the upstarts in Wisconsin, those wild Ringling boys…

Though there are occasional pinpricks of omission and a few missed opportunities, “Battle for the Big Top” is quite the circus fan’s dream.

Beginning with the final presentation of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” author Les Standiford takes readers back to the circus world’s darkest day before launching into this history of what was one of early America’s most exciting, best-loved entertainments. The evolution is well-presented, although some points are made too quickly, leaving a want for more information and no room for lingering.

Still, Standiford catches even the most jaded, Twenty-First Century reader up in the danger and excitement under the Big Top. We’ve seen elephants. We’ve laughed at clowns. We know what happens if highwire acts fail, but there’s no denying that the circus is different. Standiford brings that to light, uncovering every reader’s inner child.

And if that’s the kind of escape you need, this history will make you happier than a box of popcorn and a balloon. For you, “Battle of the Big Top” will be enormous fun.

“Battle for the Big Top: P.T, Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus” by Les Standiford

c.2021, PublicAffairs $28.00 / $35.00 Canada 257 pages

Author Les Standiford. Photo credit to Jaime Seymour-Newton.