When we think of juggling rings, we almost always think of a fairly flat circle with a large hole in the middle. The modern style of ring that we’re familiar with now was primarily introduced to the juggling world by Jenny Jaeger (1909-1986), Paolo Bedini (1914-1974), Angelo Piccinelli (born 1921), and Italo Medini (1922-2015) in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Jenny Jaeger, 1929
Paolo Bedini around 1931 with rings in the background
Italo Medini, 1937
Lesser-known ring jugglers of that same time period also used flat rings. These include brothers Michael and Tux Kolpelky, whom you can see using such rings in the following photos from 1930.
Michael Kolpelky 1930
Tux Kolpelky 1930
Rudy Horn, Francis Brunn, and others further popularized ring juggling in the 1940s, establishing it as one of the three primary juggling props, along with balls and clubs.
There is one older piece of evidence that might point to an earlier date for flat rings. Although the year of the following photo is unknown, it would appear to possibly be from the 1910s or 1920s and shows flat rings. Photo courtesy of Erik Åberg.
However, ring juggling goes back long before the 1920s. A juggler known as Herr Otto Motty performed ring juggling in the 1840s on horseback. What type of rings were these? Well, it’s impossible to say definitively, but we do know in general what juggling rings looked like in the 1800s and early 1900s. They were usually metal rings similar to what magicians used for the popular linking rings routine, but were much thicker. Rings appeared in the Catalogue Of Fine Juggler Goods Manufactured By Prof. Otto Maurer, which was published in New York City, NY (USA) in the 1890s. You can see an illustration of these rings from the catalog below, followed by three Otto Maurer rings that are on display in the Museum of Juggling History in Middletown, Ohio. There are the oldest known juggling rings in existence.
Illustration of juggling rings from the Otto Maurer catalog. Courtesy of the Alan Howard Collection.
Otto Maurer rings in the Museum of Juggling History
The only other set of juggling rings older than the flattened rings of the 1930s known to still exist are on display in the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio. They belonged to the Three Famous Russells, a juggling team that started in 1920.
Metal juggling rings from the Famous Russells
The juggler Charles Jee, who performed around 1900, is pictured below with non-flat juggling rings on his prop stand. Photo from the Karl-Heinz Ziethen Collection.
Paul Loyal was another juggler of the turn of the century era that was pictured with these non-flat rings. Photo from the Karl-Heinz Ziethen Collection.
The following unknown jugglers used rings very similar to Charles Jee and Paul Loyal.
The following illustration of Maxini and Beale from 1890 appears to show the duo passing with round-grip rings. Photo is courtesy of Erik Åberg.
The De Vere Juggling Props Catalog, published in France in the early 1900s, sold nickel-plated copper rings in two sizes; 20 cm and 25 cm. You can see them illustrated in the catalog in the image below.
De Vere Catalog illustration showing rings
Similar rings appeared in the Van Wyck Juggling Catalog of 1908, as you can see below. They were available in nickel-plated metal or in wood with an aluminum finish.
Van Wyck catalog illustration
The first instructional book (rather than pamphlet) on juggling was written by Australian juggler Anglo, who’s real name was T. Horton. The book, The Art Of Modern Juggling, was written in 1904 or earlier and was published in 1907. This book contains instructions on both ring juggling and hoop juggling, differentiating between the two. Below is the ring section of the book.
It should be noted that hoop juggling was established in the late 1880s by William Everhart. Hoops were larger than juggling rings and were used not only for toss juggling, but for floor and body rolling as well. Hoops were always made from wood and were at least 18 inches in diameter. Rings, on the other hand, were a good deal smaller in diameter, usually made of metal, and were just used for toss juggling. The hoops usually used were wooden bicycle rims, featuring a concave outside and a convex inside, unlike modern hula hoops (and early juggling rings) which are convex (circular) all around.
Louise Maxim was a popular juggler of the 1930s who used the old-style rings. You can see her juggle five rings in the following video from 1930.
Below are two more videos showing Louise Maxim juggling five non-flat rings in 1934 and 1938.
The transition to flat rings allowed jugglers to hold more rings and have greater control of their throws. This was a great advantage over the old style of rings.
Some of these new findings correct or clarify some earlier statements I made in a previous article and in one of my books. I will be updating these previous statements in those publications in the near future.