Circus in America TimeLine


This period saw the peak and the beginning of the death knell for the American circus. There were enormous social, technological, and economic changes underway, as well as the San Francisco earthquake, the Spanish Influenza, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the first Model T, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, talking pictures, Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight, and so forth. All of these had a direct and indirect effect on the American circus, bringing new possibilities and new distractions to take audiences out of the tents.

The number of circuses traveling on rails reached its high point in 1911, when thirty-two shows toured the country. The growth of the American circus over the eighteen years was exponential: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus toured with one hundred cars in 1923, carrying big top tents that could hold more than ten thousand spectators. These massive shows required fourteen acres of land for all of the equipment, animals, and people.

In 1905, Bailey acquired full ownership of Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. Circus and then sold a half interest in it to the Ringlings. In 1906, Bailey, who was considered the best manager in circus history and a model of efficiency and generosity, died. After his death, the Ringlings purchased the remaining share of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus from his widow. In 1907, they also purchased their largest competitor, the “Barnum & Bailey Circus.” In A Ticket to the Circus, Charles Philip Fox quotes a notice from the January 26, 1907 issue of Variety: “The Greatest Show On Earth on July 8, 1907, became theirs [Ringling] for $400.000, the bill of sale stipulating that the Ringling’s would take over at the close of the season on or about November 1, 1907. News of the sale was withheld from the press at this time pending the acquisition of public stock in the circus” (A Ticket to the Circus,p.37). With these acquisitions the brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin, became the most famous and admired circus owners in America. They decided to divide the country in half and continue to operate both the Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey Circuses. This arrangement continued until 1919 when they merged the two to form the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In the meantime, after losses exceeding $150,000 from a flood at their Peru, Indiana winter quarters, Ben Wallace sold his Hagenbeck-Wallace circus to an Indianapolis syndicate of seven partners in 1913. One of the partners was Edward M. Ballard, who had made his wealth as casino manager at French Lick Springs, Indiana. To attract visitors to the casino during the winter, Ballard wintered the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus near French Lick Springs, almost 200 miles north of their previous winter quarters. By the end of the 1915 season, Ballard had bought out all of his partners except two, Crawford Fairbanks and C.E. Corey, and had full control of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. Unfortunately, in 1918 the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was involved in the worst circus rail accident ever recorded; eighty-six people were killed and more than one hundred were injured when an empty troop train crashed into the circus train, which was carrying three hundred people. The wooden cars burned fiercely, fueled in part by kerosene lanterns used to light the sleeping cars.

Ballard sold the circus in December 1918 for $36,000 to Jerry Mugivan and Bert Bowers, who already owned Howes Great London Shows and Robinson’s Famous Shows. In 1921, Ballard, Mugivan, and Bowers formed a syndicate, the American Circus Corporation, in Peru, Indiana. Between 1921 and 1929, the American Circus Corporation owned the titles for Howes Great London Shows, Robinson’s Famous Shows, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto, Sparks Circus, and the Al G. Barnes Circus. In the spring of 1929, the American Circus Corporation sent out five circus — Hagenbeck-Wallace, John Robinson, Sells-Floto, Sparks, and Al G. Barnes — in a total of 145 rail cars, versus the combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show of only ninety cars.

This success could not go on forever, unfortunately. The eventual downfall of many of the touring circuses was caused by several factors, most beyond anyone’s control. In 1927, The Jazz Singer opened and kicked off the talking picture and a much more interesting and complex form of entertainment. Improved transportation and communication technology made travel easier for previously isolated cities and towns. Circus day had been a major event in every community that the circus visited for decades, but now there were other kinds of entertainment. “By the 1920s its physical presence began to diminish. The morning street parade …. Disappeared at the big railroad outfits. The ethnological congress and up-to-date spectacles of recent foreign events also vanished. By the 1930’s audience numbers were … in decline. Urban development and the rise of the suburbs pushed the show grounds away from the vicinity of the rail yards…. But more significantly, the circus no longer had a monopoly on novelty or current events. Movies [and] radio … provided audiences with compelling and immediate images that displaced the circus as an important source of information about the world.” (Davis, Janet, The Circus Age Culture & Society under the American Big Top. P. 228-229). Worst of all, in October 1929, the crowds that the circuses depended on for their existence found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression.

In 1929, John Ringling, the last of the five brothers, failed to renew the contract to place his show in Madison Square Garden. Opening in the Garden had been the traditional opening for the new circus season dating back to P. T. Barnum. The Garden’s management contacted the American Circus Corporation to have a combination of the Sells-Floto and Hagenbeck-Wallace show open the 1930 season. In what turned out to be a very bad business decision, John Ringling borrowed money and purchased the entire American Circus Corporation for approximately $2 million dollars in September 1929. This made him the undisputed king of American circus, at least until the economy collapsed in the Great Depression. Ringling was able to make payments on his loan, but poor business in 1930 and 1931 drained his reserves. In the 1932 season, he had to reduce his stable of six circuses to four—Ringling-Barnum, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto and Al G. Barnes. The John Robinson and Sparks shows were shelved. That year, he was deposed by family members as general manager of the circus, and replaced by Samuel Gumpertz. John died a few years later in December 1936 in New York City.

In 1938 John Ringling North and his brother Henry, sons of Ida Ringling (the only sister of the five Ringling brothers), took control of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The Big One.” In the 1938 season of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus added Gargantua the Great, a fierce gorilla, to the show. Gargantua was not the largest or the most ferocious gorilla outside of Africa, but he was an enormous hit, the biggest attraction since Jumbo. Gargantua’s face had been disfigured in 1931 by a misguided sailor seeking revenge on his captain during the voyage to the United States. The sailor threw nitric acid in the face of the baby gorilla, leaving a scar that looked like hateful sneer. Circus press agent Roland Butler had transformed the deformed animal into Gargantua the Great. Almost single-handedly, Gargantua rescued the show from the severe financial bind it found itself in by the end of the Depression years.

North brought the show back from near ruin, but he fired many old-timers and hired new “Hollywood” types who ran roughshod over tradition in the name of glitz. In 1939, he hired industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to redesign the midway, sideshow banners, and a cage for Gargantua and his “wife.” North also hired Charles Le Maire, a designer who worked for Ziegfeld’s Follies and the George White Scandals, to restyle and streamline Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. The 1939 program boasts that the show was a new and “rejuvenescence” form. The ‘39 season had air conditioning and the inside of the big top was painted in shades of blue, making the aerial acts clearer and easier to see when illuminated by the follow spots. The 1940 production of “The Greatest Show on Earth” hired the famed costume designer Max Weldy of Paris to re-create the return of Marco Polo for the opening spectacle, at cost of more than $80,000.

The Depression shut down or severely limited many circuses. Between 1929 and 1932, the Gentry Bros, Christy, Cole, Robbins, Robinson, Sparks, 101 Ranch and Sells-Floto folded their tents. By 1933, there were only three railroad circuses traveling in America. Urban growth left no land to erect large tents and street parades were no longer practical for in modern fast-paced American towns and cities. Movie theatres were giving the American population more opportunities to spend their limited entertainment dollars. The Hagenbeck-Wallace and the Al G. Barnes shows succumbed in 1938. In 1939, the Cole Brothers became the last company to give up the tradition of the horse-drawn circus parade.

Still, there were signs of growth and change. In 1935, Jess Adkins and Zack Terrell revived the Cole Bros. Circus, bringing in equipment from the Christy and Robbins shows, and building it back to the public eye. The first three years featured a young wild-animal trainer named Clyde Beatty who would become the premier wild-animal trainer in America. In 1939, D.R. Miller, his brother Kelly and their father started a small dog-and-pony show called the Miller Brothers Circus, which grew into the Al G. Kelly-Miller Bros. Circus. Kelly-Miller was where the great American truck circus was developed: The spool truck, the seat wagons, and an impressively efficient logistical system for “high grass”operations were all originated there.

As the American circus dug out of the ashes of the depression, it did not have the same splendor or glory. The large roaming tented circuses of the twenties and the thirties no longer commanded the American landscape. The circus was no longer the only exciting form of popular entertainment and was fighting for its very existence. A lack of large tracts of land that could house the vast number of tents forced circuses to move away from the cities and into the country. By 1940, the country was poised to enter the Second World War and to go through a series of industrial, technological, and social changes. The circus would have to adapt or become irrelevant. But, as it always had, the American circus continued to bring to entertainment to children of all ages and remained America’s preeminent touring entertainment enterprise. The events listed below show the circus moving through a very difficult time in American history


1906 Right James A. Bailey dies, widow runs the Barnum & Bailey Circus
1906 San Francisco earthquake
1906 Kellogg sells Corn Flakes for the first time
1907 Oklahoma 46th state admitted to the Union
1907 Right Ringling Brothers acquire Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000
1908 Henry Ford produces first Model T auto
1908 General Motors Corp. is formed
1908 Miller Brothers and Edward Arlington's 101 Ranch Wild West Show—toured 1908-1916
1909 1909-1913 William H. Taft serves as 27th President
1909 Typhus vaccine introduced
1909 Robert E. Peary first man to reach the North Pole
1909 The National Association for Advancement of Colored People is formed (NAACP)
1909 Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Wild West shows were combined.
1909 For the first time in history, the Ringling Bros. Circus opened at Madison Square Garden rather than Barnum & Bailey.
1910 Over Thirty circuses traveled by rail—Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used eighty-four railroad cars to transport. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show traveled with fifty-nine railway cars.
1911 Air-conditioning invented
1911 Mabel Stark wrestles Bengal tigers on the Al G. Barnes Circus.
1912 New Mexico 47th state admitted to the Union
1912 Arizona 48th state admitted to the Union
1912 Titanic sinks
1912 May Wirth makes her debut at Madison Square Garden.
1913 1913-1921 Woodrow Wilson serves as 28th President
1913 Tank introduced during World War I
1914 Panama Canal completed
1914 World War I begins in Europe
1914 Right Lillian Leitzel offered a contract with the Ringling Bros. Circus.
1915 Poodles Hanneford sets record of running and leaping on and off of a running horse with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
1916 Barnum & Bailey cross the continent
1917 The United States joins the fighting in WWI
1918 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wrecks in Hammond, Indiana and 86 people are killed
1918 Barnum & Bailey cross continent on its last tour under the B&B title
1918 World War I ends
1919 Ringling Bros. combine their show with Barnum & Bailey Circus to create Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus The Greatest Show on Earth
1919 Merle Evans begins his 50 year career with the Ringling Circus
1920 Right Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus discontinued its street parade
1920 Alfredo Codona was the first performer to consistently achieve a triple somersault on the flying trapeze.
1920 Jerry Mugivan and Bert Bowers purchase the Yankee Robinson's Circus and the Sells-Floto Circus and the title of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. These were added to Howe's Great London Circus, John Robinson's Circus and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus
1920 51% of U.S. population live in cities with more than 2,500 people
1921 The American Circus Corporation is formed.
1921 1921-1923 Warren Harding serves as 29th President
1923 On August 2, 1923, President Warren Harding dies of a heart attack in San Francisco
1923 1923-1929 Calvin Coolidge serves as 30th President
1925 The Scopes (Monkey) Trial allows individual states to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools
1925 Right Clyde Beatty becomes the youngest animal trainer in the country at the age of 25.
1927 First talking picture, THE JAZZ SINGER, with Al Jolson
1927 Charles Lindbergh completes first nonstop solo transatlantic flight
1927 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moves its winter quarters from Bridgeport, CT. to Sarasota, FL.
1927 Soviet government established the Moscow Circus School
1928 Television invented
1928 Walt Disney introduces animated cartoon character Mickey Mouse
1928 Electric razor invented by Joseph Schick
1929 1929-1933 Herbert Hoover serves as 31st President
1929 John Ringling buys the American Circus Corporation—Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, Sells-Floto Circus, Al. G. Barnes Circus, John Robinson's Circus, Sparks Circus and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show
1929 October 29—The start of the Great Depression—Black Tuesday
1932 John Ringling is forced to relinquish control of theRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus , and Sam Gumpertz then serves as the general manager of the circus until 1937
1933 1933-1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt serves as 32nd President
1936 Right John Ringling dies, last surviving brother
1938 John Ringling North and Henry Ringling North gain control of RBBB
1938 Gargantua the Great gorilla began touring with RBBB
1939 John Steinbeck publishes The Grapes of Wrath
1939 Igor Sikorsky invents single-rotor helicopter
   Pre-1793 | 1793-1800 | 1801-1824 | 1825-1871 | 1872-1905 | 1906-1940 |
About | Contact Us | Credits | Links | Resources
IATH_Logo Published by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Copyright © 2004 by Lavahn G. Hoh and the University of Virginia