Circus History of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus

To understand the history of one of the most famous circuses in the world, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, you will need to explore a past that includes some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and showmen that America has ever seen.

The lions, tigers, bears, elephants, and clowns we see today did not exist in the humble beginnings of P.T. Barnum's dreams. An exploration in the evolution of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will take you through the realm of entertainment competition, changing eras, and groundbreaking creativity.

Who Was P.T. Barnum?

Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5th, 1810 to April 7th, 1891) was a well-known showman recognized for his engaging hoaxes. It was he, who later became the founding father of the circus that would develop into the world-renown Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Before leading the life of a showman, Barnum became a storekeeper and also dabbled in the widespread interest of the lottery.

Once he failed in business, he established a weekly publication in 1829 called The Herald of Freedom. That too became a bust as he suffered a variety of libel suits and was imprisoned as a result.

In 1834, Barnum relocated to the Big Apple (New York City) and one year later, he explored the world of showmanship. His first venture involved an exhibition of an African American woman (blind and close to completely paralyzed) that he marketed as the more than 160-year-old former nurse of George Washington.

Barnum enjoyed a short-lived success with this exhibition through impressive advertising and successful tours around America until his main attraction passed away and her age was proven at no more than 80 years old.

Once again, Barnum entered a period of failure. In 1841, he purchased Scudder's American Museum (on Broadway and Ann Street of New York City) and renamed the building "Barnum's American Museum." Word across the city spread regarding the considerable amount of exhibits offered at the new museum. It soon became one of the most popular places to visit in the city.

In 1842, Barnum's museum became the talk of the town with exhibits, such as the midget, "General Tom Thumb" and the Fiji Mermaid, which displayed the mummified body of something that resembled a grossly deformed mermaid or half mammal-half fish creation.

He also showcased the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, and continued to expand his offerings with the likes of Native American dancers and the giantess, Anna Swan.

Unfortunately, Barnum's beloved museum caught on fire and suffered irreparable damage. He quickly set up shop at another location, but fire ravaged this building as well.

The Rise of Partnerships

After the loss of his New York City museums, Barnum attempted to take a break from show business, but looming debt forced him to stay in the field. Finally, Barnum was wooed to create a partnership with William Cameron Coup, who owned a circus in Delavan, Wisconsin.

With his famous name and financial backing, the "P.T Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" was born. His closest competition at the time, James Bailey, would later become an ally.

In 1872, Barnum would coin the phrase, "The Greatest Show on Earth," as his traveling circus of freaks toured the world, undergoing a series of name changes and billings in the process.

In 1881, a significant merger took place, as Barnum joined forces with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The original name, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United" was shortened to "Barnum & London Circus" for obvious reasons.

A series of splits ensued until the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth" and later "Barnum & Bailey Circus" was once more.

At this time, the main attraction was an African elephant named Jumbo, who was purchased from the London Zoo in 1882.

When P.T. Barnum passed away in 1891, Bailey purchased the circus from his widow. He successfully toured the eastern part of the United States until he transported the circus to Europe where in 1897 he began touring the continent.

This adventure lasted up until 1902 when Bailey returned to the U.S. to find that Ringling Brothers had established a reputation in the east. The new rivalry forced Bailey to tour the Rockies for the first time during 1905. The next year, Bailey passed away and the Barnum's much-loved circus was sold to Ringling Brothers in 1907 for the sum of $400,000.

The Story Behind Ringling Brothers

Five siblings created the small Ringling Brothers Circus around the same time that Barnum and Bailey was enjoying a wealth of popularity.

As customary of the times, the Ringling Brothers circus traveled from town to town in small caravans guided by animals. They primarily toured the Midwest and soon gained instant success, quickly growing in size and status. Their circus became so large that a train was needed to transport the bulk of their business. It is through this mode of transportation that the Ringling Brothers became known as the largest traveling show of their day.

Combining Shows

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and kept the circuses separate for several years. In 1919, the last remaining Ringling Brothers, Charles and John decided to combine the two circuses because, as they grew older, it was becoming more and more difficult to accommodate the independent enterprises. The "Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" made its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 29th, 1919.

Throughout the 20s, the circus generated great success and when Charles passed away in 1926, John Ringling became recognized as one of the richest men in the world. Although the Great Depression packed a mighty blow to the progress of the circus throughout the 1930s, the business managed to stay afloat. John Ringling's nephew (also named John) took over the maintenance of the circus' affairs during this turbulent time, which lasted for several decades.

Despite travel restrictions that World War II brought upon the United States, President Roosevelt made a special declaration to allow the circus to use the rail system. The business reeled from a decrease in crowds and higher cost demands. As movies and television became the latest craze, the circus slowly lost its appeal. A last performance under the big top took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 16th, 1956.

A Comeback

In 1957, John Ringling North transported the circus from a tent show to an indoor production. Irvin Feld, a well-known name in the rock 'n roll tour production industry was brought on board to help the circus. By 1967, Feld and other interests bought the company from the Ringling family and quickly began to make adjustments to enhance quality and profitability. Over the years, the show was split into two touring units ("Red Unit" and “Blue Unit") that to this day still travel the world.

And Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is alive and well. Click here for more info on the Circus today.

Click here to enjoy some circus pictures from our trip to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 2006.

Click to visit our page on the History of the Circus from Roman Times up to P T Barnum.

And click here to go to our Circus starting page with links to all our Circus pages.