Philadelphia’s circus legacy stretches back to the 1790s, when a talented British performer named John Bill Ricketts founded the United States’ first-ever modern circus.
The world’s first circus originated in Britain, shortly before Ricketts began his own career as an entertainer. The various acts associated with modern-day circuses — from jugglers to clowns, acrobats to animal handlers — had long been familiar to populations across Europe, who would occasionally chance upon such performers roaming between towns and villages to showcase their crafts.
The idea of assembling an array of performers into a single variety show, however, did not emerge until 1770. Philip Astley — a former British military officer — brought together acrobats and tightrope walkers to fill in the time blocks between his demonstrations as a horse showman. Instead of performing in a field and riding in straight lines (as many other equestrian entertainers did at the time), Astley and his performers presented their routines within a ring, thus introducing a familiar element of the circus that audiences recognize today: a central performance space circumscribed by the audience.
When he began performing, at the age of 17, Ricketts was capable of riding two horses at the same time, juggling while standing atop a horse backward, and mounting and dismounting steeds running at full speed. Cutting his teeth at Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheater — one of Astley’s biggest rivals — Ricketts cultivated an entrepreneurial spirit of his own. Sensing untapped potential, he set sail for the recently formed United States in 1792, ultimately settling in Philadelphia.
First, Ricketts established an equestrian school in his adopted city. By 1793, he had built an amphitheater that fit 800 audience members at Market and 12th Streets. Ricketts’ Circus officially launched on April 3, 1793, featuring its eponymous leader as the main attraction. Philadelphians were enthralled. President George Washington, who attended a show during the circus’ first month of operations, spoke highly of Ricketts’ skill, calling him “perhaps the most graceful, neat, and expert performer on horse back, that ever appeared in any part of the world.” The success of Ricketts’ Circus led the company to other U.S. cities throughout the 1790s, including New York City, Albany, and Baltimore.
Though the company’s productions attracted many fans, U.S. society was still suspicious of itinerant performers, who were widely considered to be mischievous. The ban on traveling entertainers had only been lifted in 1780, and — as trailblazers of a new mode of entertainment—Ricketts’ network of riders, acrobats, clowns, and jugglers represented an unfamiliar demographic to the public.
Defying this negative perception, Ricketts ran his circus with a social conscience, contributing to programs that helped poor residents heat their houses in the winter and opening up his circus grounds to Philadelphians suffering from yellow fever during an outbreak in 1793.
Ricketts’ good fortune enabled him to build the Ricketts’ Art Pantheon and Amphitheater on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets in 1794. The new facilities featured seating for 1,300 audience members as well as a roof that allowed the company to perform in inclement weather. The circus’ renown grew throughout the last decade of the 18th century, as did the support it received from its most famous fan: President Washington. The circus hosted two parties in honor of Washington, including one for his retirement.
The circus burned down in a fire Dec. 17, 1799. The following year, after leaving the United States along with some of his most trusted performers, Ricketts disappeared. Historians believe a ship carrying his crew from the West Indies to Britain sank.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org