Welcome to our digital collection of circus route books, a collaborative project by Circus World, Illinois State University, and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Together, these institutions curate the largest circus collections in the US.
Encouraging scholarly research on the American circus is one of our chief priorities. Our goal for this project is to create access to the circus route books in our respective collections in a single digital repository. Of the approximately 400 known distinct route books in existence, more than 300 are represented here, including well-known circuses such as the Barnum & Bailey Circus and The Ringling Bros. Circus and lesser known circuses such as the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus. Specialty shows such as Pawnee Bill’s Wild West and Al G. Barnes’ Wild Animal Circus are also included. These route books trace the journeys of a number of circuses that traveled across mostly the US and Canada between the 1840s and 1960s. Our collaborative repository will be the most complete source for researchers engaged in circus history scholarship.
The circus was the largest form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens of circuses traveled across Canada and the US each year, bringing to audiences new musical forms, exotic animals, and daring performers from around the world. Route books were published at the end of a show’s season, often detailing the towns and dates played, ticket sales, listings of circus personnel, and unusual events. These are unique primary source materials for historical research and insight into the daily lives and business activities of circus employees.
Our online finding aids list which route books are physically housed in our respective collections:
In addition to creating a digital collection of the route books themselves, the grant project also produced a digital exhibit highlighting performers from underrepresented groups and placing the circus in a broader historical context. The exhibit features images, newspaper clippings, interpretive articles, timelines, and an interactive map experience highlighting circus routes overlaid with historical railroad and population data.
This digital project was made possible by the Digitizing Hidden Collections program, a national grant competition administered by the Council of Library & Information Resources (CLIR) and generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Step Right Up: Digitizing Over 100 Years of Circus Route Books project was awarded full funding from CLIR in 2017.
We especially thank Pete Shrake at Circus World, Maureen Brunsdale and Dallas Long at Illinois State University, and Heidi Connor, Ron Levere, and Deborah Walk at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art for conceiving and organizing the project and for making the route books available for digitization. We are extremely grateful to the Illinois State University staff who provided expertise for the digitization, metadata support, research, and project management, contributing to the discoverability of this material and showcasing the content on this site and in a digital exhibition narrative. The team includes: Karmine Beecroft, Rebecca Fitzsimmons, Elizabeth Harman, Elizabeth C. Hartman, Dallas Long (Principal Investigator 2017-2020), Nate Moore, Patrice-Andre Prud’homme, Alanah Ruffin, Pete Steadman, Mariah Wahl, Eric Willey, Elias Wrightam, and Angela Yon (Principal Investigator 2020-2021).
Includes individual traveling wild west shows and also circuses that had wild west shows as part of the multiple line-up performances.
An additional popular production show separate (usually in its own designated tent/location) from the main circus performances, sometimes required separate admission.