Think the circus was a utopia of outsiders? Not hardly; a strict caste system was enforced in virtually every circus whose history is known. And as in Reaganomics, interaction tended to trickle only downward.
Top of the Big Top
The circus owner, natch, who — despite various fictional depictions — was not the ringmaster. Nor was (s)he a Godlike mysterious entity voiced by Linda Hunt, though that was one of our fave conceits of HBO’s Carnivale.
The headliner acts, those who drew the biggest crowds and who performed in the center ring of a three-ring circus; aerialists, tightrope-walkers, animal tamers. These folk were bona-fide celebs who earned big money, attracted thousands to their public appearances, and whose exploits and affairs were touted in mass media (mainly newspapers). Much like reality TV stars today … except with talent.
Circus Encounters of the Third Kind
The other, less famous, acts including the band, the clowns, jugglers, acrobats, dancing girls, and snake charmers. A note about snake charmers: This was the relatively unchallenging job often meted out to pretty women who married into circus families, but didn’t have lifelong training in circus arts. The snakes were generally drugged and/or defanged.
Boys (and Girls) on the Side
Sideshow acts, such as people of unusual size, hermaphrodites, lobster boys, and others now relegated to the Discovery Health Channel, and sometimes those with special abilities such as sword-swallowing and fire-eating, moved in a slightly different orbit than the Big Top performers, occupying their own separate physical space and oftentimes not participating in the main event. Some of these performers obtained great wealth and celebrity in their own right, though; and several of the most famous sideshow acts of the period appear in Tod Browning’s cult-classic film Freaks (1932).
The Support Staff
Skilled laborers such as painters, seamstresses, veterinary and human medical providers, lighting technicians, and animal caregivers. These folks outnumbered the actual performers by the hundreds, and like the performers, included families who’d done circus work for generations. They constituted their own community, earning less than performers, but crucial to circus success.
Roustabouts: sweepers of poop, erectors of tent poles, sometime-muscle if things got out of hand, the brute workforce. Carnies, it should be noted, were often relegated to the lowest of the low, but were usually not circus personnel per se; they were employed by a separate subcontractor who ran the carnival midway. These workers were only occasionally crazy, mean, or fresh out of jail, but that’s the rep they’re stuck with. — Sarah Fisch