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.”
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.”
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?