Ringling Brothers: The Beginnings of the "Greatest Show on Earth" | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ringling Brothers: The Beginnings of the 'Greatest Show on Earth'

Ringling Brothers: The Beginnings of the "Greatest Show on Earth" | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge The Ringling Brothers Poster, 1905. WHI 6050.

The Ringling Brothers Poster, 1905

A Ringling Brothers poster of "Kings of the Circus World", depicting Alfred, Al., Charles, John and Otto Ringling. View the original source document: WHI 6050

Although Wisconsin was known for the tremendous number of circuses that came from or wintered here in the 19th century, none were more renowned than the

EnlargeA group of over twenty-six Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants.

The Ringling Bros. Circus Elephants, 1943

A group of over twenty-six Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants, standing on their rear legs with front legs resting on the elephant ahead. They perform in a circus ring inside New York City's Madison Square Garden while watched by a large audience. View the original source document: WHI 22743

Ringling Brothers Circus. Founded in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1884, the family of circus owners and performers became synonymous with the American circus, building the largest and most famous circus in the world by the 1930s.

The sons of German immigrant August Frederick Rungeling (simplified to Ringling), five of the seven the Ringling brothers — Albert (1852-1916), Otto (1858-1911), Alfred (1861-1919), Charles (1863-1926) and John (1866-1936) — started their own backyard circus after seeing one unloaded from a steamboat at the McGregor, Iowa, docks. The first Ringling performance involving all five brothers took place on November 27, 1882, in Mazomanie. In a vaudeville-style show, two brothers danced, two played instruments and one sang. The brothers used their profits to purchase evening suits and top hats.

With a traveling wagon, a rented horse, and a partnership with veteran showman "Yankee" Robinson, the Ringlings opened their first circus on May 19, 1884. Unfortunately, Robinson died before the end of the first season. Two years later the Ringling brothers had their own donkey and a Shetland pony, the makings of their first trick act. A sixth brother, Henry, joined the show that same year while Gus, the seventh brother, joined soon after. By 1887 its official title was "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals."

While the circus continued to grow, but progress was slow at first. Luckily, there was no want of skill or shrewd management. Each brother had a specialty: Alf did publicity, Gus arranged advertising, Al picked the acts, Charles produced the show, Henry attended each performance, Otto managed money and John supervised transportation. It was John's skillful routing of their circus that allowed them to avoid direct clashes with competitors and to grow their audience in small or neglected towns.

In 1895 the brothers decided to travel to New England, long the stronghold of the powerful Barnum and Bailey Circus. The two circuses agreed to divide the U.S. rather than compete head-to-head. The Ringlings established their headquarters in Chicago while Barnum and Bailey stayed in New York. Neither would intrude on the other's region.

By 1900 the Ringling Brothers had one of the largest traveling shows and began buying other circuses. After James Bailey died in 1906, the Ringlings bought Barnum and Bailey, their largest competitor, in 1907, but kept them as two separate circuses. By the 1910s the Ringling Bros. Circus had more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was roughly the same size. When the U.S. entered World War I, audiences declined and many employees joined the military, so the Ringlings combined the two into "The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows, the Greatest Show on Earth." In 1929 John Ringling purchased the American Circus Corporation, a conglomeration of five major shows.

Members of the Ringling family controlled the circus until 1967 when they sold it to the Feld family, who kept the name.

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