Amazing Vintage Photographs Show Life of Circus Performers in the Ringling Bros. Circus During the 1910s

Harry A. Atwell (1879-1957) was an American photographer. He was hired for his first circus assignment in 1910 to travel with the Ringling Bros. Circus. Over the next forty years he documented the roustabouts, big top crowds, sideshow performers and center-ring stars of the circus during a time when shops, schools, and even factories closed when the circus came to town, so people could enjoy the fleeting pageantry of the traveling shows.

His fascination with the circus images began early; in later years he claimed to have shot his first image in 1907. He photographed wild west shows, state fairs, carnivals, and touring circuses, and his affection for circus folk became so legendary that in the 1930s any circus performer visiting Chicago would drop in for lunch or doughnuts at his studio at 54 W. Randolph.

In 1882, before the Ringling brothers created their first circus, the five brothers performed skits and juggling routines in town halls around the state of Wisconsin. Their first show was on November 27, 1882, in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. They called this the “Ringling Bros. Variety Performance” when they took the show to the next town. With two wandering performers the next year, the brothers toured the Northwest. After the Northwest tour, they used the money earned for suits.

They expanded their acts into a one ring show in 1884. The show added a trick horse and a bear at the end of the season. The circus started traveling by trains in 1888 allowing the show to consistently expand.

Ringling Circus purchased the Yankee Robinson Circus and opened a joint show on May 19, 1884. This brought them to the attention of James Anthony Bailey of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus as a viable competitor. The brothers met with Bailey thus agreeing to a division of areas. This was followed by them purchasing a half share of the Adam Forepaugh Sells Brothers Circus from Bailey. Bailey, under the area division, prohibited the Ringlings from playing at the Madison Garden, a location it was the brothers’ ambition to perform at. In 1887 Ringling Circus changed its official title to the “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

In 1906, Bailey died, which led to the Ringlings taking over Forepaugh–Sells, which continued to operate separately. In October 1907, the stockholders of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus approved the sale of the circus to the Ringlings. Due to declining audiences and employees being drafted for World War I, Ringling Circus and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus were merged in 1919 as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1907 Ringling Bros. acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, merging them in 1919 to become Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, promoted as The Greatest Show on Earth. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey closed on May 21, 2017, following weakening attendance and high operating costs. (Wikipedia)

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