From New York to Wisconsin to London and beyond, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has performed for millions of fans during its 146-year reign as one of the world’s biggest big tops.
The show, which is closing down permanently because of declining ticket sales, has its roots in a spectacle that began two decades before the U.S. Civil War – equal parts zoo, museum and freak show. In 1881 it officially became the circus that generations grew up watching and saw many evolutions over the years, most recently with its decision to retire its elephant acts.
1841: Phineas Taylor Barnum buys Scudder’s American Museum in New York City and renames it Barnum’s American Museum, which was something of a zoo, museum, lecture hall and freak show. It was filled with artifacts and items from around the world. The museum later burned down. Barnum also 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 for “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,” later shortened to the “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 traveling performance.
1887: The official Ringling touring show became 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 New 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 separate, 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 roughly the same size.
1919: The two circuses merged and became known as “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.”
1927: John Ringling moves circus headquarters to Sarasota.
1967: Irvin Feld, a music and entertainment promoter, buys The Ringling circus and formally acquires it in a ceremony held at the Colosseum in Rome.
1985: Kenneth Feld, Irvin’s son, becomes the owner of Feld Entertainment and the circus after his father dies.
2016: Feld Entertainment announces it will retire elephants from its circus shows. The animals are moved to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.
2017: Feld Entertainment announces that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.