Teach PA History
Visit PA Regions
"The Greatest Show on Earth: Then and Now"
Equipment & Supplies
  • poster size paper, colored paper


1. Before the school day begins, display Sneaking Under a Circus Tent on the chalkboard. If you can increase the size to poster size, it might attract students" attention early in the day. If they ask about it, you can say what amused those children also amused George Washington. Don't tell them it is the circus until Social Studies. During class tell them during George Washington's time, during the early years of our new nation, it was difficult to obtain a ticket for this show. Masters would send servants to hold coveted boxes. Some people without a ticket would make a hole in the wall to see the show. Counterfeit tickets were even made for a while.

2. Have the students guess what George Washington and so many others wanted to see just like the kids at the tent. Finally, if they haven't guessed, tell them that it is the circus! Explain how they can take great pride in the circus because the first one in the United States began right here in Pennsylvania. The first complete circus was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1793. It was created by John Bill Ricketts. Tell them during today's lesson they will compare John Bill Ricketts" circus to the kind of circus they would attend today.

3. Put students in small groups. Give each group Student Worksheet 1-Modern Circus Experiences. Have students use the worksheet and take turns (round robin) writing a descriptive word for the circus. The organizer is divided into categories based on the five senses. Students can draw upon their own circus experiences, movies, television shows, and books–any means to tap into students" prior knowledge about the circus. Use Teacher Guide to Student Worksheet 1-Modern Circus Experiences to give examples of possible answers. After they complete the organizer, have the students predict what they might see at John Bill Ricketts" circus by placing a check by their lists. Then ask them what they think might be the main attraction or event at John Bill Ricketts" circus by circling it or writing it if it wasn't brainstormed during the round robin.

4. Show Portrait of Ricketts and Horse. Explain that it was painted by Gilbert Stuart who painted many celebrities including George Washington. It is one of Stuart's portraits of George Washington that is used on the dollar bill. Ask students the following questions about the portrait.

  • What animal did Stuart draw in Ricketts" portrait? [Horse]

  • Look closely. How many do you see? [Two. One is beside Ricketts, with Ricketts" partially painted hand on its face. The second is a little more challenging to see. Stuart playfully formed the brown background around Ricketts" head into a horse as well.]

  • Why do you think Stuart painted this animal with Ricketts? [Stuart painted him with horses because he was a skilled equestrian.]

  • Based on the information in this portrait, what might have been Ricketts" talent? [Riding or training horses]

  • What do you think was the main attraction at Ricketts" circus? [Equestrian acrobatics]

  • What did you predict was the main attraction using your sensory worksheet? [Varying responses]

5. Explain that it was Ricketts" graceful acrobats on the horse that was the main attraction of the circus. In addition to this, his circus did have clowns, rope walking and tumbling, but what drew so many to the circus was Ricketts" talent on the horse.

6. Show Mr. Ricketts The Equestrian Hero. Tell students to imagine Ricketts on this horse doing the following tricks as you read the following list slowly.

  • He rode a single horse in full gallop while standing on his head on the saddle.

  • He juggled oranges while riding full speed on horseback.

  • He rode with his knees on the saddle of a galloping horse while at full speed; he leaped over a 12 foot high ribband. A ribband is a flexible pole.

  • He danced a hornpipe (fancy dance) on the back of a horse with and without reins.

  • He executed a flying mercury. A performer mounts on the shoulders of an equestrian rider and strikes the pose commonly associated with Mercury. (Show Flying Mercury to help students understand what the pose looks like.)

7. Show Picture of Pony Races at Ricketts" Circus. Ask students what is missing from Ricketts" circus compared to the circus you know. Students might respond with a list like this.

  • Two more rings

  • Tigers

  • Elephants

  • Monkeys

  • Electricity- bright lights

  • Several acts at the same time

  • Blue mist

  • Salesman selling cotton candy and other foods through the aisles

  • More stimuli

  • Recorded music

8. Explain that this is a picture of a pony race held before the circus. Point out to students that the patrons at the top of the picture are those who could afford the box seating. Those below them stood in the pit, which was more affordable. One does not see the orchestra because the show has not begun. Patrons would bring their own food.

9. Explain to the students that at first the circus was considered frivolous and even sinful. Ask students why the circus might have seemed frivolous and sinful. Tell them that to conservative Pennsylvanians it seemed unnecessary when there was much work to be done and it did not seem to have much educational value. It also reminded them of the bad habits associated with performers from Europe. Tell them that Ricketts convinced Pennsylvanians of the circus by adding historical and biblical plays and keeping the circus wholesome. Also, having President George Washington at his circus, helped improve the perception of the circus and increased the sale of tickets. People might have thought if George Washington attends the circus, it must be acceptable to attend. George Washington also helped Ricketts" circus by allowing Jack, the white charger the President had ridden during the Revolutionary War, to be displayed at the circus. Jack was considered the first sideshow at the circus.

10. Hand out copies of Student Handout 1-George Washington's Journal Entry. Write the definitions for equestrian, pantheon, amphitheater and gazette on the board. Read the diary entry for January 24th together as a class. Explain to students that in addition to Washington's entry an editor included an advertisement from Gazette of the United States to further explain what event George Washington attended that day. Have students take notice of the phrase "by desire of the President". Share with students that one of the reasons George Washington probably requested this show was his love of horses. So far from the primary sources one can understand that Ricketts" show was mostly horse showmanship. Also point out that at this time in history, the capitol of the United States was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; where Ricketts" circus was and where President Washington would have to live to fulfill his duties as President.

11. Hand out copies of Student Worksheet 2-George Washington's Diary Entry for students to complete.

12. Play "Ricketts" Hornpipe" [link to ricketts hornpipe.ram]. Explain Ricketts danced a fancy dance called a Hornpipe on the horse while this live music was playing. (Ricketts" Hornpipe can refer to both the dance and the musical piece.)
You can point out that all the music would have been performed by musicians unlike the modern circus with recorded music. After the students listen to it once, you could play it again and ask them what instrument they think this is. This song was named after John Ricketts and has been found in song books as early as 1795. It has endured in American folk tune tradition ever since. This rendition was recreated in 1966, performed by Henry Reed on fiddle.

13. Ask students which predictions for Ricketts" circus from the graphic organizer were correct. Have students complete Student Worksheet 3-Venn diagram for Comparing Ricketts" Circus and Modern Circus.

14. For homework, have students create a poster for Ricketts" circus. They are to incorporate elements of Ricketts" circus and why it would be acceptable and fun to attend. Students should use their Venn diagram to assist them in the kind of information that could be included in their poster. To help make sure students understand the assignment, ask students for plausible examples of poster messages:

Come to the Pantheon to enjoy a night of incredible horse riding stunts. You may just see George Washington and Jack, his warhorse, too!

Step right up. See the magnificent equestrian balancing stunts: the daredevil "Flying Mercury" and The Hornpipe performed on bareback.

For inspiration students could view Princeton University's collection of circus poster. See resources for website.

If you would like to provide another assessment for students who are less visual and more verbal, you could choose one of the extensions as an assessment.

Day 2

Have students share posters with the class and discuss what elements of Ricketts" circus they included in their poster.

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