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In 1889, Walter Gilman Page painted this view of Barnum's Circus set up along Parker Street (now Hemenway Street) in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. The small tents in the middle occupy what would ten years later become the site of the Massachusetts Historical Society at 1154 Boylston Street.
Faced with declining attendance and continuing pressure by animal rights groups, on 21 May 2017 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its final show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. This brought an end to a 146-year tradition of entertaining children and adults alike under the Big Top. The painting featured here depicts another endpoint, the last year "Barnum’s Circus held forth in this particular locality."
Decades before the circus depicted in Page's painting, Phineas Taylor Barnum--master showman, promoter, and entrepreneur--had established a presence on the Boston entertainment scene. In 1850, he exhibited the Chinese Lady and suite, along with a "splendid panoramic mirror of China" at Amory Hall in Boston. In 1862, he purchased the Boston Aquarial Gardens, promising the public "rare novelties from nearly every portion of the globe." To a modern eye, however the attractions seem somewhat mundane—the Great National Dog Show, a baby show, General Tom Thumb, and theatrical shows joined the aquarial exhibits until Barnum’s closed on 14 February 1863. The peripatetic Barnum began touring with his P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Managerie, Caravan, and Circus in 1870, the largest circus venture in American history at that time. In 1881 Barnum joined with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson to form what became known as the Barnum & London Circus. Barnum and Bailey parted ways in 1885 but rejoined forces in 1888 to produce the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.
The 17 July 1889 issue of the Boston Daily Globe provides an excellent account of the arrival of the circus by train. What was an empty lot on the night of the 16th was transformed overnight into the scene depicted in Page’s painting. The enormous canvas tent/stable in the foreground held nearly 400 circus horses, while the “big top”—the innovative three-ring circus popularized by Barnum in the background of the painting had seating for 12,000. There was a second large exhibition tent not shown in the painting that displayed Barnum’s “Black Tent”: illusions including disembodied heads, mermaids, and the like, along with the “Moorish Caravan”—the first of the “theatrical” pageants that became associated with the circus.
The year 1889 also marked a new beginning for one of Barnum's most popular attractions, Jumbo the elephant. Purchased by Barnum from the London Zoo in 1882 for the sum of $10,000, Jumbo, an African elephant, toured with Barnum for three years until his untimely death in 1885. Even after his death, the taxidermied Jumbo continued to tour with the circus and was still a popular attraction. In March of 1889, Jumbo made his final journey to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, arriving by train and being towed up the hill to Barnum Hall by a double team of horses and more than 50 Tufts professors, students, and local boys. Jumbo proved unexpectedly large and the entrance to the hall had to be enlarged on the fly to get him through the door. During the course of the circus's Massachusetts run in 1889, P. T. Barnum made a trip to campus to visit with his prized Jumbo.
Walter Gilman Page was born on 13 October 1862 in Boston and was a painter of portraits, landscapes, and still life. Page studied at the Museum of Fine Arts School and was living at 90 Westland Avenue in Boston's Fenway area when he painted this view of Barnum's Circus as seen from his studio window in 1889. A letter affixed to the back of the painting dated 14 September 1922 and signed by the artist gives the history of this painting and the neighborhood:
This sketch was made in 1889 – in the month of June, and was painted in my studio, corner of Westland Ave. (#90) and what was then called Parker Street. My father's house and Mr. Gilligan's, which stood diagonally across Parker St., were the only houses on Parker St. looking north and south. The tent in the immediate foreground was the "horse tent" of Barnum’s Circus, then showing – and where that tent is shown, is now #73 Hemenway St., formerly Parker St. – Beyond the tent, the little dark building is a blacksmith shop – next is a block of houses in process of construction being now #15 to #25 Hemenway St., -- opposite Haviland St. – The Fenway had been laid out but a very few years, as may be judged by the size of the poplar trees – The large exhibition tent was where the Fenway studio building is now on Ipswich St., -- And the block of houses facing the Massachusetts Historical Society – Beyond this large tent are seen the brick houses on Beacon St. – just ending by the old Mill Dam – Beyond in the distance, against the skyline is the Cambridge outline. Up to 1889, no houses had been constructed in the Fenway section – and this was the last year Barnum’s Circus held forth in this particular locality.
"Barnum's Canvas City," Boston Daily Globe, June 17, 1889, p. 8.
Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Hammarstrom, David Lewis. Fall of the Big Top: The Vanishing American Circus. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2008.
Hammarstrom's history is especially timely in that it describes an earlier existential crisis in circus history: the last performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey under canvas in 1956. In New York and Boston, the successors of the Barnum circus had long since moved indoors, but this marked the end of the 85-year reign of the "big top."
Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastadons: The Emergence of the American Museum. Washington: American Association of Museums, 1992.
Saxon, A. H. P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Vail, R.W.G. “Random notes on the history of the early American circus,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, April 1933, p. 116-185.
Wilson, Susan. "An Elephant’s Tale: An Unadulterated and Relatively True Story Chronicling the Life, Death and Afterlife of Jumbo, Tufts' Illustrious Mascot," http://emerald.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/spring2002/jumbo.html.