Golden Age of the Circus The Era of Barnum & Bailey and
the Ringling Brothers
By: John Shepler
yourself taken back in time. It's the late 1800's and you're
just ten years old and living in one of the small towns in the
midwestern USA. The most exciting thing in your life comes once
a year. No, it's not Christmas, wonderful and magical as that
morning is. This is something that gets your heart pounding with
anticipation as you race down to the main street where all the
commotion is going on. There is music, the sweet whistles of
the steam calliope singing to a rhythm that makes your heart
beat even faster. Down the street come huge wagons, painted in
bright colors. There are strange animals. A gigantic trumpeting
elephant, a growling lion, beautiful parading horses. Yes, this
is the one day of the year as exciting as no other. It is the
day the circus comes to town.
The circus has been around since the time of the Romans, who
held their Circus Maximus in open-air arenas. They had chariot
races, acrobatics, wrestling, horsemanship and wild beasts. After
the fall of Rome, wandering troupes of performers and clowns
helped keep the spirit of the circus alive until the late 1700's,
when the modern circus began to develop with exhibitions of horsemanship.
Phillip Astley, a former cavalryman was said to have started
the tradition of the performance with a large ring, beginning
in London in 1768. In 1793, John William Ricketts brought such
a show to Philadelphia and set up a permanent one ring circus.
It is said that even President George Washington would come to
enjoy the shows.
The American frontier and the circus were made for each other.
This was a time before radio, television or even the movies.
The major cities supported theater and opera, but professional
entertainment was a rare treat for the people who lived on farms
and in the small towns that dotted a country that was still being
settled. It was a situation that was ripe for the golden age
of the circus. Enter Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers,
and the stage, as they say, is set.
Taylor "P. T." Barnum had a natural gift for showmanship.
He's been called "an all-American Huckster" for his
ability to stage extravaganzas that were convincing as "the
greatest shows on earth." Barnum started his career selling
tickets and performing as a clown in a small circus. He expanded
his act with sideshow attractions that included faked mermaids
and bearded ladies. Barnum himself was so likable that people
who fell for his bizarre setups loved him anyway. Once he promoted
a "Man-Eating Chicken" that turned out to be nothing
more than a man chewing on a drumstick. "Every crowd has
a silver lining," quipped Barnum.
P.T. Barnum founded his Grand and Traveling Circus, Menagerie,
Caravan and Circus in 1870. It was so successful, it grossed
$400,000 in its first year. James Anthony McGinness, a. k. a.
James A. Bailey, formed a partnership with Barnum in the 1880's.
Together they fielded Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show
on Earth," with more people, horses, elephants and larger
tents than other circuses.
Their competition came from five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin
known as the Ringlings. As youngsters, they caught the circus
fever when their father, August Rungeling, a harnessmaker in
McGregor, Iowa took them to see a circus that traveled by riverboat.
Soon the boys were putting on shows in the family barn and venturing
out on the road with a vaudeville show. By 1890, Al, Otto, Charles,
John and Alf, plus two more brothers, Henry and Gus, had changed
their name to Ringling and had graduated from horse-drawn wagons
to railroad cars to move what they called "the world's greatest
Thanks partly to the influence of the Ringlings, Wisconsin
became known as "The Mother of Circuses." Over 100
traveling tent shows wintered in the state, more than any other.
The small town of Delavan, Wisconsin became the "19th Century
Circus Capital of the Nation." It was home to 26 different
circus companies, including the Mabie Brothers U. S. Olympic
Circus, the largest in 1847. Even an original P.T. Barnum Circus
was organized there in 1871, by William C. Coup and Dan Castello,
who managed the circus that Barnum promoted.
Barnum passed on in 1891, followed by Bailey in 1906. By then
the Ringlings had begun acquiring some of Bailey's circus properties.
On July 8, 1907, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was bought by
the Ringling Brothers but kept as a separate circus until 1919.
When merged, the "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Combined Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth" had 1,200 employees
and used 100 double-length railroad cars to transport the show.
It was the pinnacle of circus' golden age, reached just before
the introduction of radio broadcasting in 1920 which ushered
in the twilight of the traveling circus.
Today, you can still see the circus perform, as smaller shows
come to your town. You can visit the Circus World Museum in Baraboo,
Wisconsin to see shows, circus memorabilia, and 200 colorful
circus wagons, which also parade through the streets of Milwaukee
every year. By the way, did you know that the expression "making
the nut" that is often used by business owners actually
originated with the circus? The nut was the daily cost of operating
the show. Local authorities would allegedly remove a nut from
the wheel of the circus office wagon and hold it until they were
convinced that all debts were paid in that town. Only then would
they return the nut, allowing the show to move on to its next
Books of Interest:
American Circus Posters in Full Color edited by Charles
Philip Fox. These impressive 48 posters are faithful reproductions
of the originals in full color on coated stock and printed in
an extra large format to display all the fine detail created
by the artists. Circus history comes alive with acrobats, elephants,
tigers, lions, parades, tents, trains and more. These rare posters
date from the 1880s to the 1940s and were often found in store
windows and pasted on sheds, barns, buildings, walls and fences.
'O', Cirque Du Soleil at the Bellagio by Veronique
Vial. From the official photographer for Cirque du Soleil comes
this collections of photos that captures the vivid color, special
effects, costume and set designs, and performances that are the
hallmark of Cirque's new Vegas venue at the Bellagio.
Also visit these related
Circus History - History Magazine and Bob Brooke present the history of the circus in America.
Circus World Museum
- Located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, winter home of the Ringling
Brothers Circus, this museum is an historical and educational
facility that preserves 200 circus wagons. Exhibits are open
year round, and circus history comes to life each summer.