Visiting The Circus In The 1950s And 1960s

Visiting The Circus In The 1950s And 1960s

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Well before the big-budget Vegas residences of Cirque du Soleil, the circuses of yore were traveling shows that both children and adults looked forward to visiting at least once a year to spot exotic animals, watch acrobats and clowns, and play games. Whether you lived in a big city or a small country town that barely offered any entertainment, you could depend on the circus to provide a world of fun. It was a magical place that filled the air with calliope music and the aroma of fresh popcorn and hotdogs. And as soon as the circus came to town, it wasn’t long before it packed up to move on to its next destination—making each moment there that more precious and thrilling.

While the days of the traveling circus are behind us, those amazing memories still live on. Let’s take a moment to relive some of the greatest aspects of going to the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the 1950s and 60s.

Vintage Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Popcorn and Peanut Bags 1950s - Vintage and Antique Gifts - Vintage Antique and Collectible Gifts

The Shows At The Big Top

Despite stiff competition from movie theaters, families in the 1950s and 60s still flocked to circuses for a day of wholesome entertainment. The place that housed the main attractions was called “the big top,” which was the largest tent at the circus. These temporary structures were made of steel and covered with large canvases and often striped red and white. They could soar several stories high and seat hundreds of people.

In these tents, circus-goers could expect to see acts ranging from clowns, acrobats, trained animals, and trapeze artists to musicians, dancers, hoopers, ventriloquists, tightrope walkers, jugglers, and unicyclists. There was no shortage of awe-inspiring attractions!

Animal acts were some of the most popular amongst audiences. Elephants were trained to balance balls, dance, and even ride bicycles. Lion Tamers stepped into the ring with dangerous, man-eating beasts and displayed their mastery over these fierce creatures. Meanwhile, other exotic animals like zebras, llamas, leopards, bears, and monkeys made appearances to show off tricks. For many people in the audience, this was their only opportunity to see such magnificent animals.

Trapeze artists and acrobats, donning dazzling costumes, defied the laws of gravity by soaring through the air, tempting death while flipping and twirling at great heights. Tightrope walkers like The Flying Wallendas, a famous family of acrobats who performed without safety nets and protective fear, thrilled audiences throughout the country with their highwire performances.

No circus act was complete, however, without clowns. These happy-go-lucky goofballs in white makeup, flamboyant outfits, and big shoes were incredibly popular during the 1950s and 60s, thanks to their comedic timing and child-friendly hijinks. Clowns like television’s Bozo and fast-food mascot Ronald McDonald further cemented the demand for circus clown acts. Though they have since fallen out of favor, just like circuses themselves, back in that day and age everyone certainly DID love a clown!
Vintage Jumbo Popcorn Bag, Clown, Circus, Red White and Blue, 1950s - Vintage and Antique Gifts - Vintage Antique and Collectible Gifts
The Midway

Acts at the big top weren’t the only shows in town, however. While the big top was the largest tent, circuses of the 1950s and 60s usually consisted of many smaller tents, which housed secondary attractions. They were clustered around an area referred to as “the midway.” The midway included rides, games of chance, dime stores, food booths, and so-called “sideshows,” which often showcased individuals with unusual appearances or skills.

People strolled leisurely through this area taking in the sights and sounds, stopping in to visit the hypnotist, contortionist, and other small performances. The game booths were always crowded, too, especially if there were prizes to be won. Prizes could range from cheap trinkets to expensive jewelry. It was not unusual to see a child win a large stuffed animal or even a bicycle—perhaps even too many prizes to hop on rides like the Ferris wheel or Tilt-A-Whirl. Those kids might have to settle, instead, for a bite to eat from one of the many concession stands.

The Food

It’s hard not to think of a circus without imagining all the fun treats. Kids waited all year to enjoy some of the circus’ cotton candy, striped peppermint sticks, peanuts, hot dogs, and—of course—all that fresh popcorn! Popcorn was usually scooped into paper bags with circus imagery and enjoyed during the attractions at the big top. These vintage popcorn bags remain sought after collectors’ items to this day.

Some of people’s fondest memories of the circus include enjoying all the special goodies that could only be had there. The smell of fresh popcorn and hotdogs transport many back in time to their wonderful visits to the circus.
Vintage Gala Circus Colorful Popcorn Box - Clowns - Balloons 1950s - Vintage and Antique Gifts - Vintage Antique and Collectible Gifts
The Memories Live On

There was something magical about the circuses that travelled across the states in the 1950s and 60s. Empty fields were often transformed overnight with big tents, exotic animals, rides, games, and death-defying acts in glamorous costumes. Beautifully decorated machines played loud, brassy music while elephants trumpeted in the distance. The scent of fresh popcorn and cotton candy filled the air. It’s no wonder children and adults often joked about running away with the circus!

People knew that not too long after the circus train pulled into town with their large, colorful wagons and promises of fun, however, the show would one day move on. And it wasn’t too long until the circuses stopped coming all together. But now, memories from this enchanting time can live on in the form of circus antiques and collectibles. There are many to choose from here at Vintage and Antique Gifts, plus much more. So, go ahead and relive your favorite memories from “The Greatest Show on Earth!”

Please share your memories and comments below the reviews as I would love to hear! Let's reminisce together. 

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