The End of an Era: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Closes

The “Greatest Show on Earth” is no more. For many of our ancestors and even for our children and grandchildren of today, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus provided entertainment not found elsewhere. Perhaps we should all take note of the passing of this once-gigantic entertainment enterprise. The founders were the epitome of American entrepreneurship, an excellent example of why America welcomes immigrants.

The Ringling brothers were the seven American-born sons of harness maker Heinrich Friedrich August Ringling (originally spelled as “Rungeling”), (1826–1898), an immigrant from Hanover, Germany, and Marie Salome Juliar (1833–1907), an immigrant from Ostheim, in Alsace (now a part of Bavaria, Germany). One Ringling sister, Ida Loraina Wilhelmina Ringling also was part of the family although she apparently was not involved in the circus business. [Reference: “Ringling brothers” on Wikipedia.org]

John Ringling and four of his brothers transformed their small touring company of performers into one of America’s largest circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their biggest competitor in the early days was a circus created by the legendary P.T. Barnum and his partner, James Anthony Bailey, who dubbed their show “Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.” When Bailey died in 1906, the Ringlings purchased the enterprise. The two ultimately merged into one in 1919, and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus became known as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

1908 photo of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants on parade, going from the train station to the circus location.

There were dozens of other circuses traveling around the country in the later 1800s and early 1900s. However, what made the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus different was the size. It featured lions, tigers, and elephants.

America was a primarily agricultural society at the time. The only major forms of entertainment were vaudeville shows of all sorts and traveling circuses. Almost everyone was familiar with horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and household pets. In fact, people of that era probably knew more about animals than we do today. However, most had never seen a lion, tiger, or elephant until they visited a circus. The Ringling brothers had all sorts of animals to amaze the crowds, along with human performers of all sorts. No wonder our ancestors stood in line to purchase tickets: there was much to be seen that they could not see elsewhere.

The Ringling Brothers were early entrepreneurs and were amongst the first to use assembly line techniques. Henry Ford is best known for the assembly line although that was many years later. Ray Kroc (of the McDonald’s fast food chain) and Jeff Bezos of Amazon have since improved assembly line methodologies, but the Ringling Brothers were the first to develop an assembly line approach to the construction, deconstruction, and transportation of their event so that they could swiftly move from town to town. Traveling to a new location, setting up the tents, holding non-stop entertainment, then taking down the tents and moving all the equipment, people, and animals was all planned well in advance. The process was repeated time and again, constantly fine-tuned so that the circus could function with minimal delays and minimal expense. It must have been a spectacle to see their train of railway cars packed with exotic animals stretching on for more than a mile.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was considered the ultimate in entertainment before the invention of photography, movies, radio, and television. John Ringling became one of the wealthiest men in America as a result of this success.

After peaking in the Roaring 20s, the circus took a major hit during the Great Depression that effectively bankrupted John Ringling, the sole surviving brother. The circus limped along in the Depression and barely made it through World War II. In the decades that followed, American consumer tastes changed. The 1960’s and 1970’s brought harsh times for the circus as animal rights became a hot topic of concern. Little by little, the traditional circus slipped from sight in North America. Television, movies, and music were far more interesting than circus performances, and Ringling Brothers went into terminal decline.

Yesterday the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began its final show after 146 years of wowing audiences with its “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Two things:

1. Let’s take note in our family histories of the entertainment our ancestors enjoyed.

2. We now know that entertainment does not last forever. Vaudeville died years ago. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down after 146 years of entertainment. What will replace our present interest in movies, television, or even the Internet? How will our descendants be entertained?

15 Comments

One of the Ringling winter headquarters was located in Lake Swananoa, NJ. My dad was caretaker for the property probably in the 1930’s. Some of the old stone buildings are still standing.

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a lot of circuses like these exploit and abuse animals, so to all animal lovers this closing can only be seen as a positive move.

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The story of the Ringling brothers and Barnum & Bailey and American circus-related history is displayed at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Ringling brothers were from Baraboo and the area remained the circus wintering ground until 1918. We are museum junkies and this is one of the best.

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My grandmother and her sister literally ran away and joined the circus around 1914. I don’t know if it was Ringling Brothers, or some smaller show. They were training on the high trapeze. Aunt Pink fell during practice (there was a net) but it frightened her so much she refused to get back up, so they were “fired”. From there they ended up in NY City, where my grandmother became a chorus girl in vaudeville shows. I recently took my grandson to the circus and was very disappointed…it was more like a video game than the circus I remember. But the elephants were still there, and he was fascinated. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t agree with the activists who (in my opinion) have destroyed a worldwide tradition. But I guess that’s “progress”.

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I have a chalkware statue of an elephant as a reminder of my visit to see Ringling Brothers circus early 1950’s Kansas…a treasure to me!

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Huh? “Ostheim, in Alsace (now a part of Bavaria, Germany)”. There are two Ostheim, one still in southern part of Alsace, France which was never been part of Bavaria at any time except for a time as part of the Reichland Elsass-Lothringen (1871-1918). The other Ostheim is way north, northeast of Frankfurt Germany, near inside of northern border of Bavaria.

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Thank you for the great history lesson re. the circus in America! However, Ringling Brothers circus history is not gone. See the Circus World Museum website at . Baraboo, WI is the site of the Ringling Brothers summer headquarters. See the unparalleled collection of restored circus wagons, still used today in the annual Circus Parade in Baraboo. A new big top tent has been erected for the 2017 summer season’s shows. Into circus research? Circus World archives were utilized for the 2011 circus movie, “Water for Elephants.” I am a history buff and know that Circus World is an excellent day trip!

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Another great place to visit is the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida, the winter headquarters of the circus for many years. I have been to that museum and loved it. My advice: don’t plan on stopping for just an hour or two! You will want to spend more time than that.

You can learn more on the Ringling Museum’s web site at: https://www.ringling.org/circus-museum

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Joanne E. Brogan May 23, 2017 at 3:29 pm

Somers NY is considered to be the “Cradle of the American Circus” by the U S Postal Service as Hachilah Bailey brought the first elephant (Old Bet) to the USA to live in Somers. Unfortunately Old Bet met her demise when a frightened farmer in Maine shot her.

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Too bad that the circus had to divest itself of the elephants because of activists. Are we going to permit activists to rule our lives?
As a kid I was fortunate to have seen the Ringling, etc circus. It was 1935 (Yes, I’m ancient) and because of floods in NY State the circus had to make a quick decision and decided to play in our little town of Rome, NY. They expected an $18,000 loss if they canceled but only lost $7000 by changing venues.

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    They treated animals who never belong in circuses very badly, so get real.

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    Activists? You need to become educated. Ringling brothers takes baby elephants away from their mothers, and force them to stand on concrete floors for 23 hours a day. Trainers used bullhooks (long metal poles with sharp hooks on the end), ropes, and electric prods to “train” them. The trainers employ any type of beating necessary to obtain compliance. The animals cry out in pain and no one is there to monitor them. They spend most of their lives in chains when not performing. Their wounds are visible. Ringling had to pay $270K in fines for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. If you want to pay people to see the “product” of this type of cruel and uncivilized behavior — and take your children to see it — you are supporting it. Our civilization has become more refined. We don’t lop off people’s heads in public anymore, we don’t shackle people in the public square, we don’t allow husbands to beat children or their wives anymore, and we are more humane. To say that “activists” are ruling our lives is disgusting.

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Amongst my ancestors is the entrepreneur who brought the first Japanese acrobats to the US, a major act of commercial diplomacy at the time, 1870s. International troops were brought from all over the globe as novelty acts and brought a fair number of interesting immigrants to the US.

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