Electronic Theses and Dissertations




Andrea Ringer



Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Committee Chair

Aram Goudsouzian

Committee Member

Andrew Daily

Committee Member

Susan O'Donovan

Committee Member

Sarah Potter


By the turn of the twentieth century, circuses had established themselves as entertainment giants throughout the United States and much of Europe. With thousands of workers and animals traveling every day in the “tented city,” the circus constituted a unique workplace. The circus was also a highly transient workplace, with a long history of exploiting its workers. As the golden age of the circus began in the 1870s, marked by a move to the railroad shows and use of big top tents, workers became part of a huge transient community that had roots only in the winter months. The show was often described as a systematized business, both in its efficient cross-country travel and the daily setup witnessed by its patrons. Once a show set out on its annual tour in the U.S., it would visit up to thirty-five states, with a new venue nearly every day. People in small towns around the country celebrated Circus Day holidays when the tented shows had the power to shut down local business. Although people attended the shows to see the performances of acrobats, lion tamers, and trained elephants, they often stayed on the circus lot to see much of the behind-the-scenes labor. Collectively, these circus workers made up the daily public performances. Circus folks could expect to stay in the public eye from the time the train rolled into town at sunrise until it finally left close to the midnight hour. This daily schedule lasted more than nine months each year, leaving workers to find seasonal employment in the winter. The circus was a workplace and this project examines the life and labor of people who labored in tented shows during the Golden Age, from the 1880s until the late 1950s. This work asks fundamental questions about what is work, who is a worker, and what a transnational corporation really looks like. The circus payroll was one of the most diverse during these decades, employing men, women, children, and animals from around the world. This project seeks to explore the history of these transnational circus laborers, their roles in a shifting workplace, and the agency or limits of their agency around the world. Like other labor histories, this work examines labor unions, working-class culture, and industrial relations. However, it also takes a broader definition of work by parsing out emotional, manual, and performance labor.


Data is provided by the student.

Library Comment

Dissertation or thesis originally submitted to the local University of Memphis Electronic Theses & dissertation (ETD) Repository.


Embargoed until 9/4/2020