I have written four previous articles about the history of juggling rings, but each one contained information that was missing, leading to later articles. After talking with someone today about the history and development of rings and needing to point to all these various articles, it occurred to me that it would be great for the juggling community and future jugglers if a more complete resource was compiled in one place. So, despite it’s length, I’ve provided an updated and revised history of juggling rings below.
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
The Two Langers were also early users of flat rings.
Two Langers 1935
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. Click here to read about William Everhart.
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.
There are no known photos of any juggler using modern style flat rings until after the era of Rastelli. Rastelli used discs with a fat edge area and a thin middle section. A removal of the thin middle section would result in a thick, but fairly modern looking ring. Below is a similar style disc used by the Reverhos Brothers.
Enrico Rastelli with his plates
These early thick / round rings were usually made of metal. However, when flat rings replaced the earlier style, the new props were initially made of wood and were either painted or wrapped in tape. Below are just a few examples of early wooden rings from the Museum of Juggling History.
Below are a set of old flat rings made of metal. They are very painful to use.
Another early type of ring was used by the Reverhos Trio. It consisted of two internal wooden hoops (a larger one around a smaller one) connected by fabric and sewn together. Below you can see a photo of the Reverhos Trio using them and of me holding one that is in the museum.
In the 1950s, most jugglers were still using wooden rings. In the USA, wooden rings were made by Harry Lind of Jamestown, NY and Bill Dunham of Erie, PA. You can see some of these below.
While we don’t know for sure who the first juggler to use plastic rings was, I suspect it may have been juggling legend Rudy Horn. The ring below is a plastic ring that Rudy Horn’s father had made in a factory in Nuremberg in 1945. Rudy juggled with it from the age of 12 until he retired in 1975. It is very similar in size to today’s standard rings, although it is a bit thicker on it’s edge.
It was during the late 1940s or early 1950s that Francis and Lottie Brunn made the transition from wooden rings to plastic rings. You can see some of their plastic rings from the Museum of Juggling History below.
By the early 1970s, most jugglers were using plastic rings. Many jugglers had them cut out of sheets of hard plastic. During the late 1970s, prop manufacturers such as JuggleBug, Dube, and Spiderman (David Mark) began mass producing plastic rings.
Dave Finnigan, the founder of Jugglebug, relays the following story about his initial design for plastic rings, which came out in 1976. “The outermost dimension of the rings was created by drawing a circle around a cookie tin in the office of Mr. Tsai, the plastic manufacturer and mold maker in Tainan, Taiwan. Then we estimated the width of ring. When jugglers complained that the ring would not easily fit over their heads, we came up with the white ring the next year, so it would fit over the head of the jugglers.” Below is a photo of the original Jugglebug rings.
Eventually, manufacturers settled on a fairly standard size, roughly measuring 32-33 cm / 12.5-13 inches as an outside diameter with around a 3.6cm / 1.4 inch grip width. Many companies also make a larger version of these rings as well. The standard modern ring thickness is around 3.8mm / .15 inch.
I should also note that most Chinese jugglers appear to use the same standard ring. Some of them are shown below. They measure 13.375 inches / 33.9725 cm in diameter with a 1.375 inch / 3.4925 grip width. Their thickness is 1/8th inch / 0.3175 cm. They are very rigid.
Chinese juggling rings
Innovative and Functional Rings
Ernest Montego was the first juggler I’m aware of to put “edge bumpers” on his rings to make them easier on the hands. Jay Green did this with his Supersonic Rainbow rings as well. You can see both of these below.
The earliest known attempt to mass market juggling rings was as part of The Learn To Juggle With Jay Green Juggling Set that came out in the mid 1970s. It was released by Pastime Industries Ltd. of New York, NY (USA). The rings in it were cardboard, making them the only known retail juggling rings to be made using that material.
In the 1980s, Jugglebug released the Merlo ring, a standard ring with holes throughout it’s body. This made the ring lighter and easier to use outdoors in windy conditions. It was created by American juggler Larry Merlo. Mister Babache now makes wind rings almost exactly like the Merlo rings.
When visitors tour the Museum of Juggling History, there is one ring that always gets more attention than any other. This is Alexander Kiss’ amazing aircraft aluminum ring. It is very rigid yet very light. You can see it below.
Renegade Juggling and RDL have been making a wide variety of innovative rings for many years. Perhaps their best known of these are their hollow rings, which are much thicker (1/2 inch or 1 inch) than normal and can be bounced. They also make fire rings and glow rings, as well as a wide variety of rings in non-traditional shapes and sizes. You can see many of these in the following photos.
One of the most interesting rings in the Museum of Juggling History is a break-apart ring that was used by Johnny Lux. You can see it below, followed by Johnny’s regular rings. These rings are now on display in the Museum of Juggling History.
Lux used it in conjunction with a volunteer. After juggling with the three regular rings, he would invite a volunteer onstage to toss in a fourth ring. Grabbing the breakaway ring in such a way to keep it together and hide the gap, he would then hand it to the unsuspecting volunteer. As soon as Johnny let go, the ring would fall apart in the volunteer’s hand.
This is very similar to the popular breakaway magic wand that you can see being used in the following video.
A mysterious set of juggling rings can be found in the Museum of Juggling History. The were used to perform a version of the standard linking rings trick while juggling. I’m still searching for any information about these, but they do appear to be a few decades old. They were donated by Chuck Clark, who found them in a magic store. My guess is that they were juggled facing the audience rather than the usual sideways to the audience ring juggling in order to make the gap less noticeable. Then one of the solid rings was tossed high and the juggler would link the other solid ring onto the split ring and cover the gap with their hand. Then the other hand would catch the falling ring. The audience’s attention would be drawn to the tossed ring, misdirecting them from the linking below, which they wouldn’t be expecting or looking for. I suspect a modern version of this with hidden magnets wouldn’t be difficult to make.
If you know anything more about these, please contact me.
Color change rings have been around for many decades. Lottie Brunn and Henrico are two of the earliest jugglers I’m aware of that performed with rings that were different colors or designs on opposite sides. While juggling the rings facing sideways to the audience, a juggler catches each ring in such a way as to flip the ring during the catch and throw it with the opposite side now facing the audience. This gets a great response from the audience and has long been a popular trick. Below are some early color change rings, showing both sides.
Starting in 1976, Jugglebug sold color change rings, which can be seen at the bottom of the following photo.
Today, Play Juggling sells “B-side” color change rings and Mister Babache makes similar “Reverso” rings.
In the 1970s, two sets of juggling rings were invented, created, and marketed that took the classic color change a step further, by combining juggling with magic to create rings that change color more than once. I had long searched for either of these sets for the Museum of Juggling History, and recently received not one, but both sets from the family of a deceased amateur juggler.
The first set was invented by magician, pianist, photographer, author, attorney, and CPA Sam Gainer. These were marketed as Sam Gainer’s Magical Rainbow Rings. They changed color twice, going from red to white to blue (or the other way around). You can see an ad for them below from 1979.
$90 in 1979 was very expensive, equaling $320 today. This high price resulted in Sam only ever selling four sets of the rings. However, I will attest to the fact that they are indeed very well made. I also can attest that they get quite a reaction, for when I put the a video of the routine on Facebook, it received over 3,000 views in two days.
The other mysterious color change rings were invented in the 1970s by magician and juggler Bob Blau. They changed color not just once, but three times, for a total of four colors. Here’s a description of them and their creation from the Summer 1987 Jugglers’ World Magazine:
This disconcertingly active individual (Bob Blau) has come up with perhaps the ultimate melding of magic and juggling: a four color changing ring. These three rings, changing red, blue, white, and striped cannot be manipulated by a non-juggler and could not have been conceived by a non-magician. It is the remarriage of estranged parties into the ancient “jongleur” – neither one nor the other, but the true magician/juggler. One could say that this octogenarian has literally reinvented the juggling wheel. Blau credits the original idea to fellow Texan Sam Gainer, with additional work by himself and Sam Hawkins. The idea has been in the works since 1974 and is now perfected. From the standpoint of magicians, it’s a good trick: angles are not important (but of course the juggler wants the flats facing the audience), and, although Blau would rather not have the audience closer than 10 feet to his “gimmicks,” these are stage props anyway and show best at theatre distances. The “gimmick” requires a magician’s smooth touch, a little sleight of hand that makes them unsuitable for close-up work on the street or by the untrained. From the juggler’s standpoint, they provide a startling visual surprise. Although a lay audience is pleased by the two-color change, the third comes as a surprise. And by the fourth, it’s all a mystery. The trick employs the standard turn-over in the cascade with the addition of a gimmick hidden by a little misdirection. It takes getting used to. They are constructed of a combination of wood, metal and plastic, and Blau has refined the device to make it lighter, easier to handle and more visual in motion.
The set of Bob Blau rings I received are in somewhat rough shape, making the performing of the routine less than ideal. Nevertheless, below is my attempt to show you the routine, or at least how I imagine it was done.
While I’m tempted to reveal exactly how the rings work, my magician friends have counseled me not to do so. I will say that it would be very difficult to create your own and that they are very heavy.
As you can see, there are numerous styles and variations of juggling rings. It’s somewhat of a shame that 99 % of ring jugglers just use standard plastic rings.