The new exhibition Under the Big Top: The American Circus and Traveling Tent Shows is on display through July 5 at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.
The exhibit explores circuses, vaudeville troupes and other traveling tent shows in the U.S. in their heyday, from the 1820s to the 1930s. It considers the technology that made modern traveling shows possible as well as the cultural and economic factors that made them popular. Original posters, flyers and advertisements highlight the circus as a pioneer of mass marketing techniques and demonstrate the ways in which this live entertainment shaped understandings of race, gender, popular science and concepts about animal rights. Original artifacts, photographs and other ephemera invite visitors to inhabit this lost world of entertainment.
The exhibit spends time on well-known circuses like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, but also looks at the smaller shows that reached rural audiences. The Ramblin Doc’ Tommy Scott Collection fuels a section of the display, highlighting one showman’s career over seven decades.
“Scott joined a traveling medicine show that passed through Toccoa in 1936,” said exhibit curator Hunter Hellwig. “He literally ran away and joined the circus.”
Scott’s collection includes packaging for the “Snake Oil” and “Herb-O-Lac” concoctions he sold, maps that meticulously marked each year’s tour stops, and photographs and letters documenting his long and varied career.
Featuring everything from acrobats and strongmen to comedy sketches and animal tricks, the live variety shows of vaudeville also figure into the exhibit. A loan of materials from magic ephemera collector Bill Kress includes original posters from noted magicians of the day and a substitution trunk used in the “Metamorphosis” illusion made famous by Harry Houdini. A magician never reveals his secrets, but visitors will have the chance to examine this famous prop in person.
Located at 300 S. Hull Street, the special collections libraries is open free to the public weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 1-5 p.m.