Ringling Bros. Circus in Brooklyn, 1909

As the ‘Big Show‘ is back in Brooklyn today for the first time since the late 1930s, I wanted to throw up a quick post about the Ringling Bros. first visit to the borough. In late 1907, the Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and they ran the two circuses separately until 1919, when the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was formed. During the early twentieth century the winter quarters for the Ringling show were in Baraboo Wisconsin, and the circus typically opened in Chicago each season before heading out on tour. The Barnum & Bailey Circus on the other hand was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and would open its season at Madison Square Garden. In 1909, supposedly because Al had always dreamed of the Ringling circus conquering the Big Apple, they decided to switch things up and the Barnum & Bailey Circus was sent to Chicago, and the Ringling show made the 1100 mile trip to makes its New York City debut. They opened on March 25, and despite positive reviews, business was a bit slow during their month-long stand at the Garden. On Sunday, April 25, the circus moved to a lot at Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn to prepare for the first show of the season under canvas, i.e., in a tent. Traffic and subway construction in Manhattan meant that circuses were no longer able to parade there. This was unfortunate because the 1909 Ringling parade is remembered by circus historians as perhaps the best that the brothers ever put together. On Monday morning at 9am, a procession that included 44 tableaux and cage wagons, a huge steam calliope, chariots drawn by horses, zebras and elephants, mounted riders, and a herd of twenty-two elephants, began its grand march through the streets of Brooklyn. A map of the route:

Rand, McNally & Co.'s Brooklyn, 1903.
Rand, McNally & Co.’s Brooklyn, 1903.
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

When I was canvasing for materials for the Circus and the City exhibition, I stumbled across a box of photographic dry plates at the Somers Historical Society. The set of twelve plates depicted a circus parade and were produced by the Obrig Camera Co. of New York. Although labeled as “Barnum & Bailey,” when I looked at them on a lightbox it was plainly evident that they were actually Ringling Bros. wagons. After scanning the plates, the detective work began. Given the box was from Obrig, it seemed likely that the photographs were taken somewhere in New York City. And of course the only year that the Ringling show mounted a parade here was 1909. The seemingly characteristic Brooklyn brownstones in the background offered another clue, and I headed out to the Brooklyn Public Library to figure out the parade route, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle duly provided.  Luckily, the plate that featured Ringling’s famous Swan Bandwagon and its twenty-four-horse hitch gave a long view of the block, which included a rather distinctive cupola.

Somers Historical Society

With the route and photographs in hand, I was hoping to be able to determine for certain when and where they were taken. Starting off from the old circus lot (where the Old Stone House now sits), I made my way through Park Slope and up to Flatbush Ave. via Sterling Place where, much to my delight, a promising cupola came into view. Walking a bit further east on Sterling Place made it clear that this was the right block. The plates were made by a photographer standing on the south side of Sterling Place looking west to the intersection with Flatbush Ave. on the morning of April 25, 1909 (see the red arrow on the map above). A few more slides from the series:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s a picture I took from the approximate position of the original photographer. The block is obviously a lot greener today, but the north side of the street looks almost exactly like it did over a hundred years ago. Sterling Place

Although Brooklynites turned out to enjoy the parade and the headline verdict in the Eagle the next day was “Ringling Bros. Show Best Ever,” this was the only time that the Ringlings visited Brooklyn prior to the debut of the combined show. And while the parade has long gone by the wayside, it’s nice to see the Big Show back in Brooklyn again.



Happy 150th Anniversary!

On this day in 1863, Charles S. Stratton, better known to the world as General Tom Thumb, married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church. Stratton’s longtime associate P. T. Barnum promoted the event as “The Fairy Wedding,” alluding the diminutive stature of the bride and groom. General Tom Thumb was among the most famous performers in the United States, and had toured throughout the United States and Europe. His marriage to Lavinia Warren, who Barnum billed as the “Queen of Beauty” and the “Smallest Woman in the World,” was the social event of the season, overshadowing for a time even news of the war. In his memoirs, Barnum set the scene as follows:

The day arrived, Tuesday, February 10, 1863. The ceremony was to take place in Grace Church, New York- The Rev. Junius Willey, Rector of St. John’s Church in Bridgeport, assisted by the late Rev. Dr. Taylor, of Grace Church, was to officiate. Tbe organ was played by Morgan. I know not what better I could have done, had the wedding of a prince been in contemplation. The church was comfortably filled by a highly select audience of Iaci.ies and gentlemen, none being admitted except those having cards of invitation. Among tbem were governors of several of the States, to whom I had sent cards, and such of those as could not be present in person were represented by friends, to whom they had given their cards. Members of Congress were present, also generals of the army, and many other prominent public men. Numerous applications were made from wealthy and distinguished persons, for tickets to witness tbe ceremony, and as high as sixty dollars was offered for a single admission. But not a ticket was sold; and Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren were pronounced “man and wife” before witnesses.


Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The above hand-colored Currier & Ives lithograph depicts the bridal party, which included the dwarf Commodore Nutt and Lavinia’s sister Minnie, encircled by vignettes of their assorted performance routines. The illustration along the bottom shows the miniature carriage that the happy couple took through the cheering crowds to the fashionable Metropolitan Hotel at Broadway in Prince for the reception. During their honeymoon tour, the newlyweds were hosted by President Lincoln at the White House. Grace Greenwood, a visiting journalist, commented that she “noticed the President gazing after them with a smile of quaint humor; but, in his beautiful, sorrows-shadowed eyes, there was something more than amusement–a gentle, human sympathy in the apparent happiness and good-fellowship of this curious wedded pair–come to him out of fairyland.” The Strattons afterward traveled to Europe and eventually embarked on an ambitious three-year tour around the world in 1869. Charles passed away in 1883, but Lavinia remarried and lived long enough to appear in a silent film short, The Lilliputians’ Courtship (1915).

***UPDATE: For those in the New York metropolitan area, I’ll be giving a talk on the life and times of Charles Stratton at the wonderful Observatory in Brooklyn on Tuesday, March 19. Details here.

Sources: The Life of P. T. Barnum (1888); Abraham Lincoln: tributes from his associates, reminiscences of soldiers, statesmen and citizens (1895); A. H. Saxon, ed., The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (1979).

Happy New Year (1828 Edition)!

The New-York Historical Society holds a wonderful manuscript by Gabriel Furman (1800-1854) titled “The Customs, Amusements, Style of Living and Manners of the people of the United States from the First Settlement to the Present Time.” Furman, a Brooklyn lawyer and historian, was an observant chronicler of life in the city, and the Brooklyn Historical Society holds the lion’s share of his papers. While much of his work has been published, this particular MS unfortunately still awaits (and deserves) full publication. In it, Furman offers an overview of the sports and amusements enjoyed by early New Yorkers, and he has some interesting comments on the city’s long history of vigorous New Year’s celebrations. An excerpt:

The New Year’s Eve of 1828 will long be remembered as the most noisy in the City of New York. The mob assembled was much greater than usual, and very great excesses were committed. The crowd began to assemble in the Bowery between 8 and 9 o’clock in the evening, and commenced their orgies to the music of cracked kettles, drums, rattles, horns, &c. After pelting some houses in the vicinity they got possession of a large Pennsylvania waggon, to which they harnessed themselves, and dragged it down a cross street to Broadway. In Hester Street they had an affray with the Watch, whom they put to a rout….These disgraceful saturnalia are of course accompanied with much mischief and wanton destruction, but to their credit, it must be said that they have never been known to interfere with females…

[In 1829] The streets of the City that night were absolutely thronged with watchmen so that it was impossible for the Callithumpians to effect any meeting, although some of them attempted it in the early part of the evening, and were arrested, and had their instruments of music taken from them. This New Year’s Even was in consequence of these wise precautions celebrated by convivial parties, Balls, &c. without any uproar in the streets, for the fist time in many years.

Despite Furman’s ostensible happiness with order prevailing, the overall manuscript, which was written in the late 1840s, is tinged with nostalgia for the rough and tumble days of yore.

For more on Gabriel Furman, see this interesting project undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society over last summer here.