(Psst: check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story. )
“Admiral Dot,” Circus Midget, Is “Flu” VictimChicago Daily Tribune, Oct 27, 19181
Let’s round down this discussion on the days of the 1918 pandemic by returning to the biggest question:
How did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic reshape American traveling circus?
I doubt anyone could give a 100% accurate answer, but it is certain that this played a crucial role ushering in the truly magnificent and enormous years of mid century circus — although not necessarily in the way you might think. It certainly wasn’t the angle I expected when I started this project.
At the turn of the century, American traveling shows were no small side show. With the growing adoption of new technologies like the telephone and a web of interconnecting train lines that began in the 1870’s, circus shows boomed. By 1911, over 20 circuses were traveling by rail all across the country.2 The circus was a symbol of the progress and mobility of the new modern world.
What about that combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show: surely these circuses came together due to the devastating impact of influenza?
This question is more complicated than a simple ‘yes/no’ (as is often the case with significant diseases in human history).
Influenza did play a huge part.
The new Age of the Cinema surprisingly also dealt a blow, as well as the declining numbers of the actual Ringling brothers.
The biggest factor though, was probably the war.
Let’s look at the big picture. Little evidence of flu rates among circus performers has survived the passage of time, but considering the conditions, it’s hard to imagine no one was ill.
Our current standards of cleanliness certainly were not a feature of the early 1900’s circuses. Despite the outdoors living and constant travel, cleanliness for many performers and the circus children consisted of two water buckets and a sprinkler of cold water on a sunny day in the back lot.2
These large shows packed into train cars were, in fact, quite packed. “On the circus, everybody’s crowded together like candy in a gumball machine,” remarked performer Merle Evans.3 A 1919 pamphlet from the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show noted that “it is not unusual for 5,000 pancakes to be baked and eaten in a single breakfast,” which– hyperbole or not — is a lot of pancakes for a lot of people.2 And for all these people, there were few medical staff. A note from the 1950’s indicated that the huge, combined shows had only one doctor and sometimes a nurse for the entire crew.2
It is possible though that performers didn’t see high infection rates. They were known for being in robust physical health, spent their days outside in the open air, and were generally isolated from main society as their city-on-wheels rolled its way from town to town. It’s hard to know from our perspective today, since so little written evidence remains.
Small aside: Who’s most likely to blame for this gap in written and photographic journaling of circus activities between 1905ish to the dazzling rebirth of circus in the late 1930’s? The movies, of course! The first nickelodeon theaters made their debut in the early 1900s, followed by silent film theaters in the 1920’s, and America was hooked. The cinema was the first real competitor to the circus for America’s intense curiosity and fascination with the exotic, and there was a distinct wane in circus audiences during this time.2
Unfortunately for the men of the Ringling family, they were struggling with different health problems. During the 34 years the Ringlings had toured, there had been as many as 7 brothers handling the top management posts. By 1918, most had passed away. John, Charles and Alf T. were the only ones still active in circus operations, and Alf T. was in failing health. There simply weren’t enough of them anymore to manage the behemoth circus.3
In fact, there weren’t enough men in general.
With the advent of World War I (1914-18), thousands of able bodied men enlisted for military service and other thousands went to work manufacturing products for the war effort — including a substantial chunk of circus folk. Without the primarily young male workforce, the tasks of heavy lifting and keeping the circus rolling was left to women, older men and those physically unable to serve. Acts were scarce, too, with many of the performers serving the war efforts and European acts impossible to acquire.4
Business expenses kept rising and certain essential supplies were increasingly scarce. In July 1917, already a year before influenza, Charles Ringling wrote in a letter that he feared shortages in essential foodstuffs, such as flour and starch, which were subject to rationing.
“[C]osts are way beyond anything ever experienced before,” he wrote, “and difficulties of transportation are serious. We would be satisfied for the present year and the next to be able to keep our business running on the same plane as in past years without anticipating any very large profits.”4
Also, under the new Army Appropriation Act from President Wilson, the United States Railroad Administration acquired the essential power of determining locomotive usage and routes. And the Ringling Bros traveling circus just wasn’t a good enough cause to justify the 8 locomotives it needed for its two shows in 1918. The government could only make available half that number of locomotives, meaning that one show would have been unable to tour.
With a country at war and American culture rapidly changing, the influenza pandemic was the last straw, at least for the Ringling Bros. As the combined Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show, the two major circus companies could combine talent, consolidate supplies, and ultimately travel much more lean, which made the whole operation more profitable. In this way, the lasting effects of 1918 was also the first straw of the next age of circus. As stated in The Circus,
“For a nation traumatized by war and sickness, the new [combined circus] venture, jam-packed with all charismatic stars, dramatic music, incredible thrills, and pageantry of two-shows-in-one, was a nice needed jolt of excitement.”2
1. Unknown Author. (1918, Oct 27). “Admiral dot,” circus midget, is “flu” victim. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922). https://search.proquest.com/docview/174430124?accountid=14696
2. Dominique Jando, Linda Granfield, and Fred Dahlinger. (2010). The Circus. Taschen.
3. Dean Jensen. (2013). Queen of the Air [uncorrected proof]. A True Story of Love & Tragedy at the Circus. Crown Publishers New York.
4. Jerry Apps. (2012). Ringlingville USA : The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzYxMzAyMl9fQU41?sid=0750fb2d-f83a-4cbe-9bce-d5eac7586113@sdc-v-sessmgr03&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1