Initially circuses had a reputation for fraud and crime. But five of the surviving six sons of Wisconsin immigrant Augustus Ringling, were performers who created a circus known for honesty and family fun.
Al, the oldest, organized the brother’s concert hall acts and made enough money to start their own circus in 1884 in Baraboo. For the next thirty four years, the Ringling Brothers Circus made Baraboo its winter headquarters, and those buildings now house the Circus World museum.
Brother Otto was an advance man and master of financial detail.
Alf T., an artist, came up with the elaborate art work and advertising.
Charles, a virtuoso musician, later managed the combined Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus with his brother John and became one of the richest men in the United States. He created a Florida retirement community for former circus performers.
John, the youngest, started as a teenage clown and was perhaps the most brilliant. He worked as an advance agent, led the Ringling decision to move from wagons to railroads and devised the purchase of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907. After the death of Charles, he controlled the circus alone. John’s former home in Sarasota, Florida is the site of another great circus museum.
The Circus World Museum is well worth a visit, but it naturally focuses on the Ringling brothers who took the circus to its greatest heights and popularity. The Ringlings, however, were building on groundwork laid by others.
The first two decades of the 20th century saw the “golden age” of circuses. But for hundreds of years, traveling entertainers and minstrels roamed Europe. The first circus in the New World began in Philadelphia in 1793 with strongmen and acrobats. The first show in a tent was in 1825. Jules Léotard, whose surname is synonymous with tights, created the trapeze act in 1859.
These early shows were viewed by many as immoral [Imagine the scandal of women wearing leotards.], and many were a rewarding field for pickpockets and other thieves. Entrepreneurs, seeking to overcome this reputation, reached out to families with children by adding animals. Remember there were few zoos in 19th century America, and most people had never seen an elephant or a monkey.
It was the age of unbridled capitalism, the age of growth through competition. Adam Forepaugh was a businessman first and only incidentally an entertainer. He created the two-ring circus to fit more people in larger more profitable tents and charged separately for people to visit his huge menagerie.
In 1872, P.T. Barnum and his more retiring but equally brilliant partner W. C. Coup put their circus on railroad cars enabling it to travel quickly to larger population centers.
James A. Bailey [taking his surname from his circus mentor] and his partner James Cooper took their circus on an international tour including Australia, Java and South America. In 1879, they were the first to install electric lights – at the time, still a wonder to most people.
Barnum and Bailey merged in 1880 and created the three-ring circus in the largest tent of all.
Although there were about 50 circuses at the time, Barnum and Forepaugh dominated. Barnum was the ultimate showman, but Forepaugh had more animals and paid higher salaries to bring in better acts.
In 1884, the Ringlings were known as the “Sunday School Showmen” because of their clean operation and strict rules for performers. But they were still minor players, taking their circus to small towns in wagons.
In 1890, Forepaugh sold some of his rail cars to the Ringlings and died during a flu epidemic not long after at age 58. Barnum died the next year at age 80. The Ringling Bros. Circus took off and, under the leadership of John, bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus, bringing truth to Barnum’s hyperbole, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Click on photos to enlarge.
Next week’s post will feature just a few of the over 200 circus wagons on display.
Date of our visit: 7 September 2018