William L. Clements Library

Past Exhibit

Exhibit at the Great Hall of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Benjamin F. Brown and the Circus in America

September 30, 2002 - February 21, 2003



Benjamin F. Brown and the Circus in America examines the career of one of the men involved in the circus in its early years in America. Brown, who lived from 1799 to 1880, worked in the circus from the 1820s through the early 1840s. Brown and his contemporaries introduced innovations in the circus business. These innovations laid the groundwork for later nineteenth century showmen, such as P.T. Barnum. This exhibit will also trace the development of the circus in America from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and will focus particularly on the first half of the nineteenth century, the formative years for the circus in America.

The Clements Library is extremely grateful to Margaret Emery and Andrew Pringle for their generous donation of the Benjamin F. Brown Collection. This wonderful collection of items dating from 1817 to 1880 includes 56 letters, several circus posters and playbills, nine artifacts, and many other items, such as contracts, newspaper clippings, permits and bills. Thanks to this diversity, the collection enhances our understanding of the circus in America, the wild animal trade, Middle Eastern travel, and the life of a community in northern Westchester County, New York.

Case 1

Enlargement of image


In April 1793, John Bill Ricketts (died 1799), a Scotsman recently arrived in the United States, presented Philadelphians with the chance to take in an equestrian exhibition and acrobatic, rope-walking and clown acts. Equestrian exhibitions and the other acts were nothing new in America. What was new in the United States was that Ricketts brought these various forms of entertainment together into one show.


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