A poster in a shop window is captured in a glass plate negative from the museum’s collection. It is a simple building, which stood on East Main Street, across the street from the present-day Police Department building. The building housed the office of Dr. William Figgat and the telegraph office. The poster itself allows us to date the photograph because it advertises Wallace’s Show coming to Christiansburg on Saturday, October 3. A check of historic calendars at www.timeanddate.com shows that October 3 fell on a Saturday in the year 1903.
Even more interesting is the show itself. The poster touts “Wallace Show with Herr Becker’s Troupe of Performing Animals.” Benjamin Wallace, a livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana created the show in 1884. He purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus in 1907 to form the Hagenbeck-Wallace show; it became the second largest circus in the country at its peak.
Historian Rodney A. Huey, Ph.D , writes in “An Abbreviated History of The Circus in America” that the 1900-1920 period was the golden age of the American circus with nearly 100 circuses traveling in the United States by 1903. According to Huey, the circus was “indelibly fixed in everyday life” even changing our vocabulary to include phrases such as “hold your horses” (a warning to local horsemen when the circus elephants paraded through town) and “get the show on the road” (a directive shouted at roustabouts to break down the show and move to the next town).
Circus show days were local holidays, when stores and schools closed and everyone came to town to witness the spectacle. That this happened in Christiansburg is vouched for by Arthur Sullivan in a letter to his sister on July 25th, 1869. His letter, a part of the museum’s collection reads: “we had a big Show and to tell the truth about it nearly everybody in town went to see the animals and did not get away until the Circus broke up.” The excitement surrounding the circus was still strong in 1904, when two additional glass plate negatives record another visit by Wallace’s Show, this time on October 11 – 13. Crowds line the streets in the photographs watching the show’s wagon parade. In another image, a circle of viewers surround an act, obscuring it from the camera.
All of the photographs in the museum’s extensive collection record a single moment in time, but by looking at them closely we can link them together, hopefully with written documents, to understand more about everyday life during our history.
By: Sherry Joines Wyatt, Curator