The Greatest Show On Earth - The Circus

Created on Jan 23, 2017 by Kathy Pinna
There are jeers (from people who object to the use of animals) and cheers (from people who remember the circuses of their youth) for today's circuses. But however you feel about circuses, "the greatest show on earth" has been a part of our lives for a very long time.

In May, 2017, one traditional circus will no longer exist since Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus - after 146 years and managing to survive during the Great Depression - will be closing due to declining revenue. Television, movies, and even computer games have replaced the need for the traveling entertainment of the past and the right of animals to be free has changed the views of some people.

The Ringling Brothers Circus began in 1884 when 5 brothers (Al, Alf, Charles, Otto, and John) began a small traveling circus in Wisconsin. Like many other small circuses of the time, they traveled around in horse drawn carts.

Their circus quickly grew in popularity and as they grew they began traveling in trains, becoming the largest traveling entertainment of the time. And so, when P.T. Barnum died in 1891 and James Bailey died in 1906, the Ringling brothers were able to purchase Barnum and Bailey's Traveling Circus (it began in 1871) who billed themselves as "The Greatest Show on Earth."

The circus performances would include acrobats, trained animals, jugglers, tightrope walkers, clowns and of course the 'freak show'. While completely unacceptable today, the 'freak show' was a popular exhibition of biological rarities - see the photos below - of people with uncommon physical and rare disease characteristics.

In 1919, the two remaining brothers involved in the circus business (Charles and John) merged Ringling Brothers shows and Barnum and Bailey shows - making them the largest circus in the United States. In the 1950's, Ringling Barnum and Bailey abandoned tent shows - moving to indoor venues - and dropped freak shows. The last member of the Ringling family sold the circus and the decline began - not due to changing ownership but to the changing tastes of the public.

The Greatest Show On Earth - The Circus

Birthday party at the circus

Dolly Jahn's Circus Party

On the left, an acrobat and a strong woman. On the right, a little girl who grew up an aerialist.

Koo Koo The Bird Girl

Minnie Woolsey, Koo Koo the Bird Girl

1909 - poor girl. Click to read about her.

Tex & Gota Elmlund

Grandfather Tex Elmlund

1939, in their horse act at Ringling Brothers.


P.T. Barnum's Wildman of Borneo

Zachariah Thomas Mackey Hargis

(When there were sideshows)

1899 circus poster

Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows - Madam Ada Castello

"Daring Madam Castello's Amazing Exploits On The Equine Marvel Jupiter".

Main entrance to Ringling Brothers Circus

Main entrance, Ringling Bros. circus

Circa 1900 - get those cash registers ringing!

"The Fat Lady" (with the circus)

Lottie Grant (Elizabeth Charlotte Stice)
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