Exactly how these photographs came to be remains a mystery.
Photographs of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920s are especially scarce. With that said, however, for some unknown reason Charles Clarke, a leaper in the world-renowned aerial act, The Clarkonians, was in possession of (and/or quite possibly the photographer of) a cache of images that show the “Big One” from the inside out. The negatives were eventually given to Sverre O. Braathen by the Clarke family decades after they were taken.
While time has caused damage to many of the volatile nitrate negatives in this collection, what remains of these largely unseen images truly is a window back in time.
In addition to equestrian acts and performing dogs, exotic animals have been a part of the Barnum and Bailey empire from the very beginning, when in 1808 Hachaliah Bailey purchased Indian elephant Old Bet to be the star attraction in his newly-founded circus.
Glamorous gowns, shimmering spangles, and lithe leotards costume the cast in the ring, around the backyard, and on parade!
Circuses rely on their behind-the-scenes staff as much as their star performers. Barnum & Bailey cooks, grooms, mechanics, porters, riggers, ushers, and more make sure the show will go on, even during the lean years of the Great Depression.
Circus shows often open with a spectacle or “spec” procession around the hippodrome track inside the big top, featuring as many performers and animals as the director can costume. Specs were originally lavish performances with literary or historical themes intended to entertain and edify the audience.