Those who read and study history know that much of the distinctive
political and cultural phenomena of today had their origins in an
often-forgotten past. That past might have lacked modern technologies,
but in U.S. history particularly, with its revolutionary political
and economic systems that were fashioned in the 18th century and
grew in the 19th century, a very rich soil for innovation existed.
The early 19th century was especially notable for invention of all kinds
as the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and the U.S. and
reshaped and reformed human civilization. The invention of steam
engine for ships and the locomotive almost overnight expanded mass
mobility and transportation. The invention of photography, the telegraph,
motion pictures, typewriter and the telephone made “mass”
communications possible for the first time.
It was inevitable that extraordinary personalities would emerge as
inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators in such an environment, and
they did. Some are vaguely remembered today, such as Thomas Edison
and Alexander Graham Bell, but most are forgotten. I recently wrote
about Peter Cooper as an example of this historic memory loss.
One of the most remarkable characters of the 19th century in the U.S.
is now mostly remembered in the symbolic American figure known as
“Uncle Sam” for which he was the model at the height of his fame in
the early 1870s.
Dan Rice had been born Daniel Maclaren in New York City in 1823.
After a series of entertainment jobs, he created the first American
circus. He is now considered not only the father of the American
circus, but also of vaudeville, a format he pioneered. Prior to the Civil
War, he was probably the mot well-known person in the country. He
created “the greatest show on earth” before his late rival, P.T. Barnum
got in the circus business. He is generally considered the physical
model for the iconic figure of Uncle Sam. (Photographs of Rice show
him to be the spitting image of the early Uncle Sam cartoons.)
Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were among his biggest fans. By
1867, he was so famous, he ran for president. His good friend,
Horace Greeley, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1872.
Dan Rice was the first U.S. pop culture megastar.
In many ways, he invented modern American public relations. An
inveterate self-promoter, his public persona reached deeply into early
American life. He popularized “French cuffs” in the U.S. He was a
famed circus impresario, actor, director, animal trainer, professional
dancer and songwriter. He originated several idiomatic phrases
which are still in use, including “one horse show,” Hey, Rube!”
and the political term “getting on the bandwagon” (the latter
from his invitation to 1848 presidential candidate Zachary Taylor
to appear on one of his circus wagons).
Rice eventually became involved in politics, announcing his
candidacies for U.S. congress, senate, and president --- although
he withdrew from each of these races before the voting began.
The end of his story, sadly, is similar to many of those who have
achieved great fame and celebrity a century later. By the late 1870s,
changes in the traveling circus, led by Barnum and others, caused a
decline in Rice’s fortune and popularity. He had to close his circus
and its winter headquarters in a suburb of Erie, PA. He stopped
performing and retired. He died in New Jersey in 1900, virtually
penniless and forgotten.
Perhaps Dan Rice is the first cautionary tale of modern American
public relations, an industry he did so much to create, but his story
of brilliant talent, innovation, singular celebrity, and ultimate
decline remains one of the extraordinary and most American
narratives in our history. It should not be forgotten.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.