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

Ringling Brothers poster, 1899

Ringling Bros World's Greatest Shows

At the end of the 19th century, the show was "tremendous, patriotic, educational, moral, glorious . . . " and more!

Charles Ringling

Charles Ringling

One of the Ringling Brothers with his wife.

1899 elephant attraction

Ringling Bro's marvelous acting Pachyderms ... Lockhart...

"Engaged at the highest salary ever paid any attraction."


"The Bearded Lady" 1909

C.A. Arthur,  "Bearded Lady"

Pretty much a man in a dress?

Tom Thumb's wedding, 1863

Tom Thumb, 1863 Wedding

P. T. Barnum made him a star.

Teddy Roosevelt III

Teddy Roosevelt at circus, [5/13/24]

Teddy Roosevelt's grandson at the circus, 1924.

The Escalante Circus

Henry Acevedo 'Blackie' Escalante
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