Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey Circus

The two largest circuses in the United States merged when the Ringling Bros. Circus bought its largest competitor, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, in 1907.

Summary of Event

In 1907, the Ringling Bros. Circus purchased its largest competitor, Barnum and Bailey Circus, creating the world’s largest circus. The seven Ringling brothers were divided as to whether or not they should make the purchase, but John and Charles Ringling persisted, and finally the circus was purchased for $410,000, after a year of discussion and negotiation. The event signified the merger of the three largest circuses in operation in the United States. Ringling Bros. Circus
Barnum and Bailey Circus
[kw]Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey Circus (Oct. 22, 1907)
[kw]Barnum and Bailey Circus, Ringling Bros. Buys (Oct. 22, 1907)
[kw]Bailey Circus, Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and (Oct. 22, 1907)
[kw]Circus, Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey (Oct. 22, 1907)
Ringling Bros. Circus
Barnum and Bailey Circus
[g]United States;Oct. 22, 1907: Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey Circus[01980]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 22, 1907: Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey Circus[01980]
[c]Entertainment;Oct. 22, 1907: Ringling Bros. Buys Barnum and Bailey Circus[01980]
Bailey, James A.
Barnum, P. T.
Ringling, John
Ringling, Charles
Ringling, Albert C.
Ringling, Alfred T.
Ringling, Henry
Ringling, August G.
Ringling, Otto

The first circuses in the United States had appeared in the late eighteenth century and were primarily traveling menageries. By the nineteenth century, the circus had become a firm tradition. Barnum had founded his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in 1870 at the persuasion of Dan Castello and William C. Coup, who wanted Barnum’s name and financial backing for their circus. Barnum’s show combined animal and human exhibits and featured the first human sideshows. Coup had been noted for his innovative business practices, and he was the first circus proprietor to use circus trains to move his circus from town to town. Barnum’s show eventually evolved into the most well-known circus of the nineteenth century.

The Barnum and Bailey Circus was created by Barnum and James A. Bailey, who had merged their individual circuses in 1881. The endeavor was so successful that it grossed $400,000 in its first year of operation, and by 1882 it was billing itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Bailey and James E. Cooper had formed the Cooper and Bailey Circus in the 1860’s and secured such exhibits as the first electric light, Little Columbia, in 1879; the first baby elephant born in an American circus; and the Great Wallaces, the first bicycle troupe to appear in the United States. The combined Barnum and Bailey show was enormously successful and featured such acts as Jumbo, the world’s largest elephant (and the source of the adjective “jumbo”) in 1882.

Despite Bailey’s retirement from the partnership in 1885, the combined circus continued to be highly profitable and successful. After Barnum’s death on April 7, 1891, Bailey bought the circus from Barnum’s widow, Nancy, and continued to run it, taking it on a European tour from 1897 to 1902 and expanding it to five rings and additional stages. When Bailey died in 1906, his widow had a British syndicate manage the show, but she was unsatisfied with the management and was prepared to sell when her arrangement with the syndicate expired. She approached the Ringling brothers, the only showmen who had both the money and the inclination to acquire such an enterprise.

The Ringling Bros. Circus had begun in 1884 as a tent show under the name Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers. It was started by five of the brothers, Albert, August, Alfred, Charles, and John. The brothers had witnessed John Stowe & Company’s Great Western Circus in 1869 after receiving a free ticket from one of its performers, and the boys had been fascinated by the phenomenon. After the creation of their circus, the five brothers toured the American Midwest and Northeast, moving from town to town in small, animal-drawn caravans. They acquired their first elephant in 1888, and as the show grew, they changed the mode of transport to train. In 1889, they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment from Adam Forepaugh, a fellow circus owner. By 1890, their circus was the largest traveling show of its time, and the other brothers, Henry and Otto, eventually joined the circus as well. When Barnum and Bailey launched their European tour in 1897, the Ringling brothers were quick to seize the opportunity to expand, and they captured the audiences that Barnum and Bailey had left behind in the United States.

The Ringlings named their circus the Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals. One of the distinguishing marks of the circus was its attitude toward the public. The Ringlings insisted that their enterprise’s public dealings be fair and honest; they would not allow ticket sellers to shortchange customers and prohibited games such as three-card monte.

A poster advertising the Barnum and Bailey Circus a few years before it was purchased by Ringling Bros.

(Library of Congress)

The Ringlings were of divided opinions when Bailey’s widow first approached them regarding a possible sale of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. John Ringling, the sixth of the Ringlings’ seven sons, was the most well known and successful of the brothers, and he and his brother Charles pushed for the merger of the circuses, arguing that beyond the advantage of expanding their own show, they would be assimilating their largest and most prominent competitor. Other members of the family feared that they would be overstretching the company’s finances and taking on too much work. When the other brothers gave in and allowed the sale, John and Charles were proved correct, and the endeavor was enormously profitable.


Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus became the largest and most successful of the American circuses. The Ringling brothers shaped and help define the circus tradition. The two circuses were at first run separately; they were not combined until 1919, when John and Charles Ringling, who were largely responsible for the circuses’ management, decided they were no longer able to run the shows separately. On March 29, 1919, they debuted the merged show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The circus was the largest and most spectacular in the United States: The main tent had a capacity of ten thousand people, and the show employed more than twelve hundred employees and required one hundred double-length railroad cars to transport it. The resounding success of the combined circuses made John Ringling one of the richest men in the world. In 1926, Charles Ringling died, and John Ringling moved the circus’s winter quarters to Sarasota, Florida, where he built a thirty-room Italian villa.

In 1929, John Ringling, by then the only survivor of his family, bought the American Circus Corporation for $1.7 million. In doing so he absorbed five major shows: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Sparks, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and John Robinson, making him the owner of nearly every major circus in the United States. After Ringling’s death in 1936, the circus was operated by his nephew, John Ringling North. In 1967, North sold the circus to Irvin Feld, a former manager of the company. The Feld family sold the circus to the Mattel company in 1971, retaining production control, but bought it back in 1982. Ringling Bros. Circus
Barnum and Bailey Circus

Further Reading

  • Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Analysis of mass entertainment in nineteenth century America. Focuses on P. T. Barnum as one of the most skillful manipulators of the public imagination.
  • Davis, Janet M. The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top. Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Well-illustrated and well-written history of the circus as it appeared in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Discusses how the circus reflected changes in the overall culture and how similar contemporary entertainments are played out in locations such as Disneyland and Las Vegas.
  • Durant, John. Pictorial History of the American Circus. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1957. Well-researched historical account of the American circus that focuses on individual details rather than attempting to provide a broad overview.
  • Ringling, Alf. Life Story of the Ringling Brothers. Boston: R. R. Donnelley, 1900. Biography of the Ringling brothers.
  • Sloan, Mark. Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus Circa 1920 as Seen by F. W. Glasier. Boston: Quantuck Lane Press, 2002. Contains promotional photographs taken by Glasier, a Boston-based commercial photographer who shot promotional photos of circuses that came through that city.
  • Sutton, Felix. The Big Show: A History of the Circus. New York: Doubleday, 1971. Comprehensive overview of circus history from ancient times to the present day.
  • Taylor, James. James Taylor’s “Shocked and Amazed”: On and Off the Midway. Boston: Lyons Press, 2002. Essays taken from the Shocked and Amazed journal, which documented carnival and midway lore and legends through interviews and essays. The essay on P. T. Barnum is comprehensive and useful.

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