Why do Steampunk events generally spotlight circus acts? If you have been to larger Steampunk events you might have seen jugglers, fire show acts, stilt walkers, contortionists and slight of hands.
The Victorian Era, which Steampunk is partly modeled after, was a fabulous time for circus performers. The middle class had more free time on their hands in this Post Industrial Revolutionary period. They also had more money in their pockets. The circus was in higher demand due to the extra time and money,
The Circus developed from a simple fairground whimsy to an organized legitimate trade during this time because of aforesaid higher demand. Amphitheaters and large tents now housed these traveling shows. Entertainment began to not only encompass the theatre, but also these roving bands of circus entertainers with legitimate skills.
Artists had been banding together for over century before hand. The idea of a circus was not wholly original just to the Victorian Era. What changed was the breadth and the scope of these Victorian Circus acts. They were traveling carnivals, trying hard for respectability in a world where class movement was a tight and awkward affair.
A big draw to these entertainers were the equestrians. Most troupes worth their salt had an equestrian to draw in the masses. Most Steampunk Events will not have horses to prance and perform daring feats of do, but for the Victorian Era it was their main draw…until the mid century. Several fairgrounds were shut down by the powers that be. They did not want riffraff coming into town.
Conversely, after the shutdown of these grounds a new wave of assembly halls, theaters, music halls, and amphitheaters were constructed, creating a new structure for the Circus. This is when the number of Circus’s also began to rise, to meet demand.
The Circus was a place of entertainment and wonder for Victorians and their natural curiosity. Curiosity was on the rise during this era. Spurred on by the previous Enlightenment period, and scientific and social advances. Notably, the expansion of the British Empire helped bring about healthy curiosity of the cultures under their protectorate.
During this time it was okay to be curious. It was expected. In previous era’s curiosity was abhorrent. Plutarch thought curiosity was ‘vulgar’.
Victorians were different. ”Visual demonstrations acted as a great social leveler, uniting unskilled workers, working-class tradesmen and elites who were attracted to the circus ring and other democratic places.”
The Circus was so much more than just a place to gape and have fun. The next time when you visit a Circus think of it as ‘a great social leveler’. A step in the path of social equality. Wow! Who knew that the bearded lady was so much more than just her fabulously groomed ‘tache.
The Circus and Victorian Society
by Brenda Assael