Circus World: Roustabouts, Animals, and the Work of Putting on the Big Show

Univ. of Illinois. (The Working Class in American History). Jul. 2024. 272p. ISBN 9780252087967. pap. $24.95. REF
In the latest addition to the publisher’s “The Working Class in American History” series, Ringer (history, Tennessee State Univ.) looks at the circus world’s workplace and community through the lenses of labor history and gender studies. Circuses have been part of American life since 1793; the first big top tent went up in 1825. In its heyday, Barnum & Bailey traveled 40 million miles a year, with 85 double-length boxcars transporting gear, crew, and animals. Circuses waned in the 1950s due to rising costs, changing consumer tastes, and the threat of lawsuits and government action; Ringling Bros. closed in 2017 after a 146-year run. This thoughtful study, with helpful notes and an index, explores child labor, women’s work, global workforces and cross-ocean migration, and labor within a colonialized space. Ringer examines what it means to work nonstop from March through October and lie dormant during the winter. She also details how circus workers are recruited. Ringer does a solid job conveying how this unconventional workplace fits under the rubric of capitalism.
VERDICT Fascinating, thoughtful research that will appeal to circus buffs and students of labor history.
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