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Ellen Donovan
Middle Tennessee State University

Circuses in Late Nineteenth-Century Children’s Periodical Literature

In this paper I analyze the illustrations that accompany stories or articles that featured the circus in Harper’s Young People and St. Nicholas between 1875 and 1890.  Despite the large visual vocabulary associated with the circus via circus posters and other advertisement, almost all of the circus images in children’s periodicals refrain from showing circus performances, especially the human performers in costume, even when the costuming is described in the text.  Furthermore, when the text suggests an intimate “behind the scenes” portrait of the circus, the illustrations often feature circus employees pursuing domestic tasks.  In addition, illustrations which portray children playing circus emphasize comic ineptitude rather than deft skill.  From my analysis I conclude that despite enthusiasm for the circus shared by writers, editors, children, and their parents and despite the fact that almost every article or story assumes that readers have attended a circus performance, editors determined that images of circus performance were too seductive.  The romance of the circus is definitely dampened in the illustrations.  In light of this discrepancy between the texts and the illustrations, I also conclude that that editors viewed children as much more susceptible to visual images than to verbal text.

 

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