Step Right Up and Take a Peek Behind the Big Top!

2018 is the 250th anniversary of the modern circus, and there’s no better way to celebrate than with real pieces of circus history! From wagon to rail, the American circus has brought entertainment to the masses and created a community of artists, performers, and misfits.

Although not an American creation, the circus as we know it today is steeped in American tradition, offering a bit of vaudeville and feats of athleticism shrouded in vibrant imagination. It has also leaked into mainstream American life. Vernacular originating in the circus has found its way into our collective idiomatic vocabulary in phrases like “hold your horses,” “three ring circus,” “greatest show on earth,” and the perennial youthful threat to “run away and join the circus.”

The Newberry’s first foray into circus life came in 1939, when Chicago architect and avid circus fanatic Irving Kane Pond (1857-1939) gave his collection of circus memorabilia, including his own original photographs and sketches, to the Newberry. The resulting American Circus Collection contains publicity and programs representing over 22 circuses that date from the late 19th century.

Pond was fascinated by the circus. He collected a wide range of ephemera from shows including an 1891 Barnum and Bailey broadsheet and an Adam Forepaugh Circus program from their 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition show. But more significantly, his close personal relationships with many circuses allowed him to take behind-the-scenes photographs of performers in the “backyard” where they lived while on tour.

Pond’s photographs, of an area usually restricted to staff only, offer a rare view of the American circus in the 1920s and ‘30s. A picture of day-to-day circus life can be found in his images of animals in repose, staff at meals, and portraits of performers and their friends.

Pond had developed such an expertise after years of following the circus that he wrote a book on the subject, the 1937 publication Big Top Rhythms, including his own illustrations. His early sketches for the book are part of his collection. The wonderfully charming freehand sketches and ink drawings capture Pond’s deep understanding of these artists and his admiration of their craft.

The book evinces his commitment to bringing the joys of the circus to the public, and, today, Pond’s materials in the Newberry collection continue to share his passion for circus life.

To enjoy the sights and splendor of the circus from Pond’s eyes, plan a visit to the Newberry. To register as a reader and request materials for a visit, go to For reference questions, send an email to

By Jo Ellen Dickie, Selector for Reference