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Interpreting the Evidence

Circus and the Financial Panic of 1837

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Expansion and Reform (1801 - 1861)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load "Animals, Horses, &c. at Auction", Circus, Somers, 1837 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Broadside. "Animals, Horses, &c. at Auction", Somers, NY
Other, SomersHS_Broadside_Animal_Auction

Document Description
"Animals, Horses, &c. at Auction", Somers, NY, 1837

Historical Challenges
Compare the financial panic of 1837 to today’s financial hard times. In 1837, people might have given up going to the circus in order to save money. In modern times, what might people have to give up in order to save money?

Learn about the Barnum & Bailey circus. Are there any animals on this poster that are still used in the circus today?

Historical Context
The panic of 1838 started in September with the failure of Jay Cooke’s company which financed many railroads and part of the Civil War efforts.  Many people rushed to sell stocks, but were too late and set off a financial panic.  The New York Stock Exchange was closed for 10 days. By November 55 railroad companies declared bankruptcy and the country’s unemployment rose to 14%.

The Zoological Institute was founded in 1835 with more than 100 investors. They purchased animals, equipment, and property for $329,325. One of the investors was Hechaliah Bailey, whose family founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which is still in business. The company was very successful in entertaining the public with circuses. However, when the financial panic of 1837 hit, the company sold its property, equipment, and animals at the Elephant Hotel in Somers, NY.

Compelling Question
How does the financial panic of 1837 impact the economic and social life of Americans exhibited by this broadside?

Check for Understanding
Students should be able to write a brief paragraph that provides an answer (that includes evidence from the broadside) to the essential question.
After looking at the broadside, you can conclude that even successful business owners panicked during the Panic of 1837. The circus groups were worried that they would lose money because no one would pay money to see the circus. The broadside gives the public information about the auction. It says that the auction will be on Tuesday and Wednesday the 22nd and 23rd of August at the Elephant Hotel in Somers, NY. It also lists all of the animals, such as a female rhinoceros, a fine healthy animal to try to get people interested in buying it.