Digitizing Route Books from the Golden Age of the American Circus

Over 300 route books made by American circuses are being digitized for the first time by Illinois State University, Circus World, and the Ringling Museum of Art.

“The Circus Annual” from Ringling Bros. (1901) (courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collections, Milner Library)

Before cinema, television, and even radio, Americans had the circus. “Circuses were the entertainment in America, and you didn’t have to go far, because they were always coming to you,” Maureen Brunsdale, special collections and rare books librarian at Illinois State University (ISU), told Hyperallergic.

Traveling with a Circus by Prof. Chas E. Griffin (courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collections, Milner Library)

Brunsdale is working on a major digitization project through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ Digitizing Hidden Collections initiative. Focused on circus route books dating from 1842 to 1969, the digital humanities project provides unique insight into this traveling entertainment of the masses. “At the end of the season, the larger shows — and some of the smaller shows, too — would compile what was like a yearbook, a day-by-date book of things that happened during the season,” Brunsdale explained. These route books would chronicle the weather, the performers, the employees, the roustabouts who erected the tents, and even riots and accidents.

“These would be sold to the fans and anyone who wanted to relive the glory of the show they had seen that previous year, and perhaps ramp up anticipation for the coming season,” Brunsdale said. “For today’s researchers, it’s a way to get back into that time and find out what life was like. It’s a great way to relive history.”

The three-year grant for the digitization was announced last month and will concentrate on over 300 route books at ISU’s Milner Library, Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. Only around 400 circus route books are known to survive.

Beneath White Tents: A Route Book of Ringling Brothers, World’s Greatest Shows (1894) (courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collections, Milner Library)
Beneath White Tents: A Route Book of Ringling Brothers, World’s Greatest Shows (1894) (courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collections, Milner Library)

“They’ve never been digitized before,” Brunsdale said. “It’s an incredible thing for researchers. You get history, you get geography, you get marketing, you get business, finance, insurance; you could name any academic department, and you could probably tie it to circus somehow.”

For instance, there are the sociological and ethical questions of eras when “exotic” people from Africa and Asia were displayed as oddities, as well as the anatomical exhibitions of the “freak shows.” In the books, circus histories are sometimes accompanied by rare photographs and descriptive text, as well as details of local life that may not have been documented elsewhere. Brunsdale related an anecdote about aerialist Minnie Fisher, who was riding in a horse-drawn taxi during a taxi strike when she was hit in the head by a protester’s rock. Luckily she managed to maintain her balance during her evening performance, for which she received a standing ovation. “Who knew all of that was happening in this little western town where the circus was for the day?” Brunsdale said.

For now, the project is in its very beginning phases, but eventually, scholars and the public will be able to search all the route books by keyword, whether “trapeze artist” or “elephant.” And Brunsdale is encouraged that some unknown circus route books have already emerged from obscurity thanks to coverage of the project and all of its parts. “We’ve come to know that when people say that their life is a circus, it should mean it’s a well-oiled machine,” she said.

John Robinson’s Ten Big Shows (1903) (courtesy Illinois State University’s Special Collections, Milner Library)

Read more about the circus route digitization project at Illinois State University.

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