LOOK: Visions of a bygone circus era

Men (Black and white) drive camels (Bactrian and Dromedary) and a circus wagon during a parade for the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Denver, Colorado. One man holds a shanai (flute); people watch from the sides by office buildings and businesses. The Daniels and Fisher tower is in the distance. Between 1913 and 1916. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7566)

circus; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Men (Black and white) drive camels (Bactrian and Dromedary) and a circus wagon during a parade for the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Denver, Colorado. One man holds a shanai (flute); people watch from the sides by office buildings and businesses. The Daniels and Fisher tower is in the distance. Between 1913 and 1916. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7566) circus; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Men drive camels and a circus wagon during a parade for the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Denver, Colorado, between 1913 and 1916. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7566)

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is back in Denver, so we dove into the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection as we tend to do on Thursdays to look at circuses in days of yore.

The only shot of Barnum and Bailey we could find featured a perhaps problematic photo of a one “Col. Tim McCoy and his Indian Line Up” that we thought might be in poor taste to blast around the internet. Instead, here are some other images of a bygone era which, true to form, still feature conventions that might prove uncomfortable to a modern sensibility.

If an image of a monkey in chains or a show elephant rubs you the wrong way, remember progress is actually a thing. This May Ringling Brothers’ elephants performed their last show.

(Left to right) A Cowboy with the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show stands with his hands tucked under his arms in front of a painted backdrop. He wears a cowboy hat, bandana, bandolier with holster and pistol, leather chaps with fringe and cowboy boots. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7443) Two women circus performers, in costume, pose beside an elephant at the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Their costumes include turbans with ostrich feathers, baggy pants open at the sides and tapered at the ankle, chemises with fitted bodices and trim, and jackets of sequined fabric and fur trim. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7503) Charles Orville Walters, a member of Devlin's Zouaves, stands in costume on the grounds of the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He holds a rifle and wears a fez hat with the letters "D" and "Z" a short jacket with appliqued motifs on the bodice and sleeves, a sash around the waist, baggy pants and leggings. Circus tents, props and mountains are seen in the distance. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7437) circus; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
(Left to right) A Cowboy with the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show stands with his hands tucked under his arms. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7443) || Two women circus performers, in costume, pose beside an elephant at the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7503) || Charles Orville Walters, a member of Devlin’s Zouaves, stands in costume on the grounds of the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7437)
Native American (tribe unknown) men who are dressed as giraffes pose near a circus tent, Sunflower (Flower) Carnival, Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Colorado. The men hold the necks of the costume with long poles. The costume is attached to suspenders that the men wear. 1898. (Horace Swartley Poley/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/P-2231) circus; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Native American (tribe unknown) men who are dressed as giraffes pose near a circus tent, Sunflower (Flower) Carnival, Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Colorado. 1898. (Horace Swartley Poley/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/P-2231)
A monkey and puppy, with the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, sit on the ground next to each other. The monkey rests its hand on the head of the puppy. The monkey wears a chain around its neck connected to a ring on the bottom of a circus trailer. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7434) circus; historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A monkey and puppy, with the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, sit on the ground next to each other. The monkey rests its hand on the head of the puppy. The monkey wears a chain around its neck connected to a ring on the bottom of a circus trailer. Between 1910 and 1917. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Z-7434)

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @kevinjbeaty.