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Circus Route Books Reveal Details Under The Big Top

Romances were often forbidden in the circus.  Harry Potter was a famous trapeze artist.  And circuses hated Texas.  These are some of the tidbits of circus history you'll find in a route book.

The largest grant in the history of Illinois State University's Milner Library will preserve a wealth of circus  history and make it widely available to future generations.

When the circuses hit the road each year to to crisscross the country, they kept a record of their travels, detailing many things -- daily ticket sales, meals served, even budding romances between aerialists. Then, at the end of the season, they published that record in a route book -- a kind of yearbook for performers, circus workers, and fans alike.  Illinois State University's Special Collections has a large collection of these books, of which only 400 are known to exist today.  The library will receive a portion of a $268,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to digitize their books, which date from 1842 through 1969.

The books reveal intriguing details about the life in a circus and give a window to an age gone by, which will be valuable to researchers and circus fans, said Maureen Brunsdale, Special Collections Librarian at Milner.   "Circus is a fantastic lens through which to learn American history.  You can look at a route book and learn about weather, you can also learn about the economy and more."

It's also a great view of how circuses changed over the decades.  "You get things like going from a wagon show," said Mark Schmitt, Senior Specialist at Milner's Special Collections. "Actually going from town to town in a wooden wagon, and then shows moving form that model to using the rail and so having a wider route to go. Over time, you get a sense of what areas were more profitable that they went into...and also the areas they hated.  Most shows hated Texas! The advance team would go in a couple of weeks before a show would roll in and put up all the posters and get all the lot contracts and water contracts and grease all the palms that needed to be greased.  They hated Texas because it seemed like they were treated poorly and the deals they struck  weren't always solid deals. So they would end up paying twice in some instances.  That's the kind of information you can find in these route books."

"The route books are wonderful resources," Brunsdale enthused. "As you look through a book, you'll see the ethnic diversity of the performers."

And there's some familiar names, too -- there was a man named Harry Potter who was a trapeze artist around the turn of the century.

The route books also reveal the differences between the circuses and how they treated their employees. One book highlighted an artist who was about to take the matrimonial plunge with another performer with The Great Wallace Show. Well, at Ringling Brothers that was strictly a no-no.  They didn't want single performers ....comingling, shall we say?  Pair off, and you're fired at Ringling. Clyde Noble from Bloomington worked at Ringling as a member of The Flying Fishers. He had an eye for another performer, and they conducted a secret love affair under the nose of the Ringling management.

"Circus is an important and often overlooked element of our history," said Brunsdale. "Digitizing the books will help increase the awareness of this wonderful thing called circus." 

Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.