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"The Greatest Show on Earth: Then and Now"
What to Know
Teaching Time
2 50-minute sessions
Grade Level
Elementary School
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • History
Historical Period
  • New Nation - 1761-1800
  • Contemporary Pennsylvania - 1975 to Present
On April 3, 1793, America was introduced to its first complete circus. John Bill Ricketts, an equestrian of extraordinary skill who studied in London, came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–at the time our nation's capitol–and established a riding academy and circus. His circus was no ordinary affair. Students today might recognize only a few similarities to what they know as the circus. When we say "Let's Go to the Circus" today, we think of cotton candy, exotic animals, lion tamers, elephants, acrobats, clowns, light shows, etc. Ricketts" circus, however, mainly tapped into the widely popular and practical interest in equestrian skill. His show at first centered around dare-devil equestrian feats which held his audience spell-bound. This allowed Ricketts to be competitive with the nearby Theater and helped change opinions on the value of the circus. (A Congressional resolution was instituted in 1774 as a wartime measure which banned all theatrical performances in America. This ban lasted until 1789, just four years prior to Ricketts" first performance.) The endorsement of President George Washington's attendance, as well as the use of his horse Jack as a side feature, also created a prestige to attending the event we do not typically associate with circus shows today. After about a month from his premiere show, Ricketts added more acts–a tightrope walker and juggling acrobat–to his performance, and the circus as we know it begins to take shape. Thanks to Ricketts" entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit, along with his considerable riding skills, Americans were able to experience this form of entertainment for the first time.


Students will be able to:

  1. Compare Ricketts" first complete circus to the modern circus.

  2. Interpret primary sources to understand the entertainment of the first circus in the United States.

  3. Conclude that the main attraction at the circus was Ricketts" equestrian acrobats.

  4. Know that Ricketts" convinced Pennsylvanians that the circus was wholesome and educational instead of frivolous and sinful.

  5. Know that George Washington attended Ricketts" circus.

  6. Represent Ricketts" circus in the form of a poster.

Standards Alignment

  • Arts and Humanities

    9.2.5. A. Explain the historical, cultural, and social context of an individual work in the arts.

  • History

    8.2.3. A. Understand the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to Pennsylvania.
    8.3.3. A. Identify contributions of individuals and groups to United States history.
    8.3.3. B. Identify and describe primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in United States history.

  • Mathematics

    2.6.5. C. Sorts data using Venn diagrams

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    1.6.5. A. Listen to others.
    1.6.5. C. Speak using skills appropriate to formal speech situations.
    1.6.5. F. Use media for learning purposes.

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