In cities across America, the circus parade was once one of the biggest and most anticipated events of the year. The entrance into town of the colorful and noisy procession of performers, brass bands, jugglers and exotic animals, and the bright, shrill notes of the calliope, meant the circus had arrived.
The highlights of the parade were the massive, ornately decorated circus wagons featuring painted "tableaux" or elaborate hand-carved reliefs. Drawn by teams of draft horses festooned with brightly colored plumes, the wagons were designed to dazzle the townsfolk and entice them to the performance at the fairgrounds.
As Fred Dahlinger, Jr., historian at the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, explains, "Whether to purchase big top show tickets with their limited disposable income was a decision often made after observing the splendor of the wagons in the show's free street presentation."
Most of the wagons had a functional purpose, too, transporting equipment, costumes, animals and performers. In the early days of circus parades, the horse-drawn wagons themselves traveled overland in a caravan from town to town. Later on, the wagons were carried atop railroad flat cars, unloaded at each circus stop and taken to the showgrounds, where the parade began and ended.
The wagons pictured here are on display at the Circus World Museum, which has more than 200 antique circus vehicles in its collection - the largest of its kind in the world. Most may also be seen, along with at least 40 other wagons from the museum, on August 2 in Milwaukee in the annual Great Circus Parade, a reenactment of the magnificent street pageants of yesteryear.