What it was like when Ringling Bros. circus came to Philly in 1906

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will fold up its big top for good in May after 146 years in business, but not before Philadelphia gets one last run this weekend. Not surprisingly, a lot has changed since the circus first came to town.

Philadelphia will see its final Ringling performances -- the circus takes over the Wells Fargo Center Thursday through Monday -- as part of its “Out of this World Tour.”

Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, wrote in a statement that economic and societal changes had “made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

However, back in the day, the circus was anything but unsustainable. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were originally two circuses. The Ringlings purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. in 1907 after James Anthony Bailey’s death in 1906.

An April 24, 1882, article in the Inquirer details the arrival of Jumbo, Barnum & Bailey's famed African elephant, at Broad and Washington. The crowd was "immense," the Inquirer wrote. "Even ladies on their way to church stopped with prayer books in their hands to endeavor to obtain a glimpse of some of the animals," the article reads.

Ringling Bros. came to Philadelphia for the first time in 1906, according to a statistics-laden Inquirer report that referred to it as “the Barnum of the West.” The 1906 Inquirer article indicates the show was so popular that performers could expect to earn between $250 and $1,000 a week -- about $6,700 to $25,000 in today’s money. Not bad, considering the circus cost about $7,400 a day to produce in 1906. Representatives at Feld said the company does not provide current information about show costs or employee salaries.

These days, however, the show overall appears to be significantly smaller than the act put on more than a century ago. In the early 20th century, Ringling Bros. employed more than 1,200 people, including 375 performers, 350 property men, 125 bill posters, and 75 cooks and kitchen helpers, among others. The show also used more than 650 horses and 40 elephants, according to the 1906 article.

The current “Out of This World” production, the last time Philadelphia will see a Ringling Bros. performance, employs about a quarter of the people the 1906 tour did, with the modern total standing at just under 300 workers, including 100 performers, according to Feld’s numbers. The circus also now tours with just 80 animals.

Ringling Bros.' traveling footprint has also shrunk. In 1906, the circus used 85 train cars measuring 65 feet each to transport the entire show, including the 540-foot main circus tent. These days, the whole show fits in 55 total cars, a Feld spokesperson said.

The circus’ schedule has also changed. Shows now run three times throughout the day on weekends. In 1906, performers could expect two shows per day, except Sundays, for a seven-month season, according to the Inquirer. Now, tours typically last 10 to 11 months a year.

Camera icon archives
From the Inquirer archives, June 1, 1942.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey stands just months away from wrapping up its 146-year history. As the Orlando Business Journal reports, the organization will lay off about 462 employees between March and May. Employees were reportedly informed about the layoffs in mid-January after news broke that the circus would be shutting down. According to the Associated Press, some employees will be placed at Feld’s other properties, which include Disney on Ice, Marvel Live, and Monster Jam, among others.

Feld tried to stave off Ringling Bros.' end with attempts to adapt the show to modern times, including hiring its first female ringmaster, Kristen Michelle Wilson, 35, earlier this year. The company also cut the show's running time to 2 hours and seven minutes from its initial 3-hour length, the AP reports. Elephants were retired from the show in 2016 after decades of protests from animal activists, and the circus launched an interactive app that year as well.

None of that, however, could save Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. All that’s left now is for Philadelphia to pay its last respects to what will soon be formerly known as the Greatest Show on Earth.


Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, through Feb. 20, Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St., $15-$133, 1-800-298-4200, wellsfargocenterphilly.com.

This article draws on material found in the digital archives of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily NewsSearch the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.