Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Rise of Industrial America
Work in the Late 19th Century
Circus Days and Ways

Portland resident W. E. "Doc" Van Alstine retired from active circus life in 1917. Doc was interviewed in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project; excerpts of that interview appear below. What kinds of work did Doc do in the circus? What was the nature of that work? What insights into the lives of circus people does Doc provide?

View the entire interview with Mr. Van Alstine from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

At an early age I had a yearning for the show business. School didn't interest me a bit. I hated books. I wasn't a danged bit interested in reading about what somebody else did, or where they went, or what they saw. I wanted to go, do, and see things for myself, and I couldn't think of any better way to satisfy my ambition than to join up with a circus.

School, in my day, wasn't much like it is now. Boy, oh boy, in them days if you didn't toe the line you got what was comin' to you. Teachers and parents both, in them days, had spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child ideas, and if a youngster didn't do exactly what he was told, they used to lay it on plenty with a hickory switch, or somethin' just as good.

Come a day, once, when I was a young gaffer in my early teens, I had a chance to run away with the Mighty Yankee Robinson Circus. The lure of sawdust and spangles was much stronger than family ties or the red schoolhouse, so off I goes. I was only with the circus four days when I was dragged home to the family fireside and my place at the table, but not without a trip to the barn first, where my father strapped me around the legs and across the back with a tie-strap until I wasn't hardly able to navigate. As tough a lickin' as the old man gave me, I soon forgot it - but I didn't ever forget my first four days with the circus.

The thrill of them few days with Robinson's circus stuck with me through more than a half century of circus troupin'. I was hired as a "block" boy. The block boy had to help set up and "strike" (tear down) the "blues". Incidentally, general admission circus seats has been blue as far back as I can remember. There wasn't no commoner job on the circus, but I remember how proud and thrilled I was merely to touch a piece of circus equipment: the blocks, the angle pieces, the seat boards - anything that was a part of "the circus."

And I remember how I gazed in awe at the performers, and to think I was so close to them. I seen a lot of beautiful women in my day, but I don't believe I ever seen a woman in my later life that looked so beautiful to me as them circus women did. I had the feelin' that they was queens, or goddesses, or somethin' too beautiful to belong to this world. And I recall the thrill of thrills when a clown-circus folks call the funny men "Joeys" - said, "Hey, lad, run out to a butcher shop and get me a pound of lard." The Joeys used lard for taking off their "clown white", or make-up. I was so excited at havin' a performer actually speak to me that I couldn't say yes or no. But with the ten cent piece he give me clutched tight in my fist, I run like lightnin' to the nearest butcher shop. Boy, oh boy, was I happy! . . .

My family was determined that I was goin' to be a doctor, like my old man was. They insisted that I take up the study of medicine and follow in my father's footsteps. In them days, anybody that thought they was cut out for it, could be a doctor if they wanted to. All you needed was a little schoolin' and be handy around sick folks and not be afraid of the sight of blood. All medicine was bitter, if it was any good, and if they didn't know what ailed a person they 'cupped' him and drew some blood. Then he either got better or worse, as God willed. I might of made a good doctor, at that, if I only could of got show business off my mind.

When I got a few years older, I was able to out-talk the old folks and get my own way. I give up all thought of pill-rollin' and left home to join a circus, and I stuck with circuses for nearly sixty years of my life. Studyin' for a doctor, though, give me the nickname, "Doc", and wherever on this globe the gray dawn seas a "big top" bein' raised, that's the name I'm knowed by.

I been asked to draw a comparison between the circus of today and the circus of the past. Well, they just ain't no comparison. The circus in this day and age seems really to be the stupendous, gigantic, colossal exhibition the advance billing and the "barkers", "spielers", and "grinders", claim for it. The oldtime circus was a puny forerunner of the mammoth aggregations now on the road. The circus your grandfather went to see as a boy, was nothin' more than a variety, or vaudeville, show under canvas. Pretty near all the acts they done in the circus could of been put on in even the ordinary theaters of that time. Could you imagine the Ringling Brothers' B[arnum and] B[ailey] show of today tryin' to squeeze itself into any theater, auditorium, or indoor arena in any town, say, like Portland?

The people who works for circuses today is all trained specialists. Everybody has only one job, and he's supposed to do that one thing well. The oldtime trouper was a Jack-of-all-trades. He could shoe a horse, if he had to, he could clown, drive a ten-horse team, lay out canvas, and fill in at anything around the lot except perhaps aerial acrobatics, and believe it or not, many of the old-timers could even "double" in acrobatics.

The circus has always been one of the world's most progressive enterprises. New inventions, if they was something the circus could use, was grabbed up by the circus as soon as they come out. The circus was always away ahead of anybody else in lighting equipment. When stores and business places throughout the country was still using tallow dips for light, the circus was using calcium flares bright enough to almost blind you. The pressure gaslights used by circuses in the early part of this century was intensely brilliant by contrast with the dim, dinky lights of the average town the circus visited. Many small-town oldtimers will tell you they first saw Edison's marvelous incandescent lamps when some circus came to town.

Yes, the circus of today is bigger and better in every way than circuses was, even twenty-five years ago. But the kids of today ain't so wide-eyed and amazed at what they see at a circus as they was a quarter of a century ago. So many marvelous things goes on all the time in this day and age that kids probably expect more from a circus now than it's humanly possible to give. . . .

Circus people in the old days was considered social outcasts. "Decent" people wouldn't have nothin' to do with troupers. This attitude on the part of "outsiders" towards show-folks, brought the show-folks closer together - made 'em clannish. Circus people was just like one big family, and was always a good lot, and always willing to help each other over the bumps. People don't look at it the way they used to, any more, but circus people is still clannish just the same.
top of page

View the entire interview with Mr. Van Alstine from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.