10 Circus Acts That Have Withstood the Test of Time

Throughout history, many sideshow acts have been exploitative, but today's sideshows are largely progressive. © Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis

Since the 19th century, the sideshow — which featured people with unusual appearances or talents and sometimes paraded offensive stereotypes — has been a part of circus culture [source: Victoria and Albert Museum]. And lest you think it's an act of the past, be assured that there are still numerous traveling shows that exhibit performers. The message has rightfully changed: A lot of the shows these days are progressive acts of empowerment. The performers might be entertaining, but education and acceptance is a powerful tool in contemporary sideshows.

That being said, sideshows of the past were often problematic, to say the least. For one, they might be as simple as showing off a member of an ethnic or racial group seen in the Western world as "exotic" or "bizarre." People born with disabilities or physical conditions were also presented as oddities, and to get away with presenting these folks as specimens, circuses might couch descriptions of the performance with pseudo-scientific language.