The evolution of the Ringling Bros circus from freak show to the big top

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown doing a somersault during a performance Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Orlando, Florida.


ELLENTON, Fla. – From New York to Wisconsin to London and beyond, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has performed for millions of fans during the 146-year reign as one of the world’s largest big tops.

The show, which is closed permanently because of declining ticket sales, has its roots in a show that began two decades before the AMERICAN civil war as a zoo, a museum and a freak show. In 1881, it officially became the circus that the generations that grew up watching and saw many evolutions over the years, most recently with its decision to retire the elephant acts.


— 1841 — Phineas Taylor Barnum buys Him the American Museum in New York City and changes the name of the American Barnum Museum, which was something of a zoo, a museum, a lecture theatre and a freak show. It was filled with artifacts and objects from all over the world. The museum was later burned to the ground. Barnum took his show on the road as “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling American Museum.”

— 1881 — Barnum partners with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, “P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” later shortened to “Barnum & London Circus.”

— 1882 — The Ringling Brothers — Alf, Al, Charles, John and Otto — performed their first vaudeville-style show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

— 1884 — The Ringling Brothers Circus begins as a travelling performance.

— 1887 — The official Ringling touring show was the “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

— 1895 — The Ringlings decided to branch out to England, which was already the territory of P. T. Barnum. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, 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.”

— 1907 — After the death of James Bailey, the Ringlings buy Barnum and Bailey. They keep the circuses separately, and the Wisconsin Historical Society wrote that 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 about the same size.

— 1919 The two circuses merged and became known as the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.”

— 1927 — John Ringling circus moved headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.

— 1967 — Irvin Feld, a music and entertainment promoter, bought The Ringling circus, and formally acquired in a ceremony held at the Coliseum in Rome.

— 1985 — Kenneth Feld, Irvin’s son, is the owner of Feld Entertainment and the circus after his father dies.

— 2016 — Feld Entertainment announces it will retire the elephants of the circus shows. The animals are moved to the Middle of the Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Florida.

— 2017 — Feld Entertainment is pleased to announce that the closing of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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