Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Combined circuses operated nearly a century; spectacular bandwagons

Source: AT THE CIRCUS Practice Book Series by Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the largest and best-known circus in America. It survived nearly a century as a combined unit.  Its heritage stemmed from many mergers, but especially those of the Ringling Brothers, Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891), and James A. Bailey (1847–1906).  

The Barnum Circus was born out of Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, an unusual museum featuring a 2500-year-old Egyptian Mummy, the Fejee Mermaid (P.T.’s biggest hoax), General & Mrs. Tom Thumb, and a Lilliputian five-ring circus.  P.T. Barnum, the greatest American showman of the 19th century, seized upon the availability of rail transportation in 1872 to put his show on the road. 

In 1881, Barnum and Bailey merged to create the then largest circus.  Initially, it also had the largest title: “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, Howes’ Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie.”  Fortunately, in 1888, this was shortened to “Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.”

In 1897, Bailey took the show to Europe for a five-year run.  Meanwhile, in 1884, five of the seven Ringling Brothers had taken their little wagon show out of Baraboo, Wisconsin.  By 1890, they had prospered sufficiently to also move their circus on rails.

When the “Greatest Show on Earth” returned to the U.S. in 1903, Bailey found a strong rival in the circus field’s leadership role.  Both Barnum & Bailey and Ringling anticipated the Barnum return from Europe by building even more spectacular bandwagons.  Barnum introduced the world’s largest bandwagon, called the “Two Hemispheres Wagon,” celebrating all the countries they had toured during their five years away. 

Barnum’s “Two Hemispheres” bandwagon

Competitor Ringling commissioned the “United States” and “Columbia” bandwagons.

Ringling Brothers’ “United States” bandwagon
Ringling Bothers’ “Columbia” bandwagon

For a while, the two largest circuses agreed to “split territories” but after Bailey’s death, his estate sold almost all of his circus properties to the Ringling’s, assuring their dominance of the sawdust world. The units continued to tour separately until 1919, when the shows were consolidated into one colossal aggregation performing under a 500-foot Big Top, requiring 100 railroad cars for the costumes, props, tents and riggings, 1500 performers and employees, and the most comprehensive collection of wild animals ever put together. 

With the consolidation of the two units, bandmasters Karl L. King (Barnum & Bailey) and J.J. Richards (Ringling Bros.) retired from the circus and young Merle Evans took on the role for the combined unit and remained on the bandstand for fifty years. 

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ceased all operations in May 2017, 146 years after P.T. Barnum opened his circus and created an America legacy.

About Joe Shearin 16 Articles
Joe (WJU #3773) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Secretary and Trombonist in Windjammers Unlimited.