Did You Know?: Purdue Circus and May Day activities

May 8, 2014  

Purdue Circus 1915

The Purdue Circus, held each May in 1913-16 and 1921-22, was an elaborate series of attractions coordinated by a group of seniors. Here, the cover of the 1915 Purdue Circus program is shown. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Archives and Special Collections)
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In the early 1900s, to coincide with the end of classes each May, Purdue's student body staged a day of elaborate events that included the Purdue Circus and May Day activities.

Two committees of seniors traditionally coordinated the festivities, which were first held in 1913 and were open for anyone to attend. The day began with a morning parade and progressed to May Day activities, circus sideshows and an evening circus performance, according to a paper by David Hovde, associate professor of library science.

The parade spanned near-campus streets on both sides of the Wabash River. It typically included more than 40 groups of participants, including bands, clowns, engineering students, Greek organizations and a wide array of floats. It also included a variety of circus animals such as lions, giraffes, elephants and monkeys, all of which were rented from the Murray Co. of Chicago, a circus supplier.

Held outside on what is now called Memorial Mall, May Day activities took place independent of the circus and primarily involved women. The activities were meant to give female students an event of their own, since most campus events at that time were geared toward men. The festivities included a play or interpretive dance, coronation of female students given honorary titles such as May Queen and Maid of Honor, and a Maypole dance.

The evening circus included attractions such as tumblers, gymnasts, tight-wire artists, bicycle stunts, comedy performances, a football game among clowns, and acts and skits that involved rented circus animals and costumes. Admission to the circus was usually five cents.

May Day 1913

In the early 1900s, Purdue held May Day activities outside on what is now called Memorial Mall. Here, students are shown participating in a Maypole dance that took place during May Day activities in 1913. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Archives and Special Collections) 
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The circus grew in elaborateness and popularity until 1917, when World War I led to the cancellation of that year's event. May Day festivities continued for several years until they evolved into other events.

In 1921 and 1922, Purdue again held circuses, but afterward the tradition was abandoned.

The circus and May Day festivities had grown out of a more raucous end-of-classes ceremony alternately known as the McAnnix, Mack Kannix and Mechanics Burning, which celebrated the end of mechanical engineering classes for the year. 

The rowdy nature of the events led to the end of that tradition in 1912, when the final burning was held. The students then incorporated the event's parade element into the first Purdue Circus, which the University's faculty and administration supported along with May Day.

More information about historical student traditions is available in Purdue University Libraries' e-Archives or by contacting Archives and Special Collections at spcoll@purdue.edu.

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 9-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu

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