1940s Color Photos of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus

A collection of historic images shows the community, pageantry, and backstage grit of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus 

  

All photos courtesy of the Charles W. Cushman collection at Indiana University


The circus life is one of gaudy glamour, but it is also filled with danger. 

In the January 1930 issue of the magazine, Atlantic author and trapeze artist Jay Zarado wrote about the "thrills" of a career in the big top. Twenty-foot high falls, tiger attacks, and tightrope malfunctions made for unique occupational hazards, and many performers were injured on the job. However, in the circus, Zarado wrote, "nothing must be allowed to mar the show." This held true even in life-threatening situations. 

In this passage, Zarado recounts how she completed an act when an essential part of her rigging failed:

Once I was gayly balanced on my trapeze when a steel ring at the top of the centre pole broke with a loud snap. The break, occurring on one side, turned the rigging and threw me sideways and right toward the centre pole. I did not think of anything at all simply opened my arms imploringly and met the pole, and slid down its length to the ground, acquiring slivers and blue paint all the rugged way, and leaving little pieces of my skin and tights and the whole front of my white satin costume. Down on the ground, I gathered the remnants of my tights and costume around me, took one look at the tangled mass of my rigging on the ground, and crept out of the back door to the dressing room. Later, the band leader told me that the next time I put a long slide for life in my act I ought to let him know in advance, and he would have the drummer cooperate with a stirring roll on his snare drum. The doctor picked splinters out of me for an hour or so, and every once in a while during the rest of the season I would find one or two he had overlooked. I must have been too eager to get started on my slide, for I had a bump on my forehead, black and blue and very prominent.
Despite the danger, Zarado claimed the true reward of circus life is the sense of community shared with "hundreds of people from all parts of the world, all nationalities, all beliefs, bound by one common bond--the show."

That sense of family is apparent in these photos by Charles W. Cushman, an Indiana photographer who traveled the country in the in 1940s. In the series of images above, Cushman repeatedly visits the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus in Cook County, Illinois, capturing the scene outside the tent. Performers smile warmly for Cushman's lens, and they don't shy away from showing off their costumes and talents. But as colorful as these images are, they also hint at the darker side of the circus--elephants are clearly bound in chains and they perform for handlers who are clutching bullhooks. 

Cushman documented a slice of Americana that remains alive to this day. The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus is currently in its 127th year of operation.

Read the full story here.
Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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