Institutional Holdings


John Ringling: The Man Behind The Archive

C. 1923 John Ringling - Library of Congress
C. 1923 John Ringling – Library of Congress

To develop some impression of John Ringling and his accompanying mission is to realize the archive, that is, to sift through it, to pry apart the organizational identity “Ringling,” from the physical individual who gave it his name. In this case, however, the Ringling Library contains little of Ringling the man but a few biographies, two filing cabinets filled with printed pages copied over from dated newspapers and other articles, and multiple shelves, both upstairs and downstairs, containing auction catalogs that Ringling and others have used over the years. From these, the sense of who John Ringling was as an individual as far as could be found is relatively superficial.

Most apparent, intentionally or not, is that what we know of the man is limited, following from official documents and sensational news articles that laud Ringling with phrases like this one: “The World’s Greatest Showman!” Even from third-party biographical materials, there seems to be an inherent bias that recounts mere dates and events, rather than personalized details. These would include exterior information of John and Mable’s social and professional lives, information of other family members and their interests, as well as articles detailing the Ringling’s various business dealings. Looking over these artifacts, we know of Ringling as a successful businessman, building a circus empire along with four of his brothers. Together, they changed their father’s name, “Ruengling,” removing its german inflection in what was likely an effort to streamline the name for various advertising campaigns and the ease of pronunciation for circus-goers.

C. 1899 Ringling Circus Poster for Madam Castello - Library of Congress
C. 1899 Ringling Bros. Poster for the act “Madam Castello” – Library of Congress

It might be said that this move was the originary of their legacy, and thus their archive. In a sense, whatever original document reflected this change became their initial archival document, a body of signs that would later pass on to John, the last living brother. Besides this exterior, that is, what is determinable from available documents detailing elements of Ringling’s business ventures and the history of the Ringling Museum, there is little detailing his personal life.  Ringling was a man who was careful with what he allowed in the public sphere, much of his spoken words appearing within a professional or business context. A newspaper article from 1928 (Sarasota Herald) says of his voice: “Doubtless he can talk loudly, but his voice is low pitched, singularly soft, smooth as velvet, occasionally vaguely sibilant.” Apart from illustrating differences in the use of language in news media from nearly a century past, it’s clear that Ringling’s speech mirrors the nature of information available about him.

Ringling was a man who was in control of his words and his public persona, portraying an image that he thought advantageous to his mission. And his mission? For this, we must look toward the vast body of works that were collected in the years before his death in 1936, from the works of art housed within The Ringling Museum to the Ca’ d’zan and other structures whose Venetian Gothic stylings and arabesque columns contained opulent interiors along with Ringling’s own collection of books, later detailed in the McGurk inventory. From the years following his death and the recovery of these objects after ten years of litigation as the Ringling Estate turned over to the state of Florida, Ringling (as an organizational identity) has continued to collect additional materials and works that exemplify John Ringling’s tastes.

From this collection, a common thread runs throughout, its totality reflecting a taste in art that is, at once, grandiose and stunningly quietus. From this vantage, John’s personality shows through. Every work, from the grand brushstrokes of the collection’s largest paintings to the minute detailings in decorously illustrated books reflect the remarkably theatrical quality of the man who made the first additions to this archive. Ringling wanted the public to remark on these qualities and decide for themselves what it was all about. His personal details? Well, that was John’s business. He let his collection speak for him. And that it does.

-Corey Culbertson


Works Consulted

Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo. Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows – Madam Ada Castello. Digital image. Library of Congress. Ringling Bros., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <;.Image of a Ringling Bros. poster c.1899

“John Ringling: A Man of Few Words But Tells of Art Museum.”Sarasota Herald 19 June 1928, Pg. 1, 82 sec.: n. pag. Print.

John Ringling. Digital image. Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <;. Image of John Ringling at his home, May 1st, 1923. A gift to LOC by Herbert A. French, 1947.

Ray, Gene, ed. John Ringling : Dreamer, Builder, Collector : Legacy of the Circus King. Sarasota: E Ringling Museum of Art, 1996. Print.



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