In 2014, I wrote a five part series on the history and development of the juggling club. As readers of that series found, there are a myriad of ways that clubs have been made over the past 150 years. There are hundreds of variations of types of clubs. While this type of wide variation doesn’t exist with rings, there are some innovative and novel examples that should be examined. Before we do that, let’s take a look at the history of the juggling ring.
The earliest use of rings for toss juggling is still a mystery. We have several early references to jugglers using rings or hoops in their performances, but these describe the props being used to spin on an arm, leg, or around the waist. The earliest example we know of that definitely refers to toss juggling comes from an interview of an unnamed London street juggler by Henry Mayhew in 1861. In the interview, the juggler states, “Then I got some tin knives made and learnt to throw them: and I bought some iron rings and bound them with red and blue tape to make them look handsome; and I learnt to toss them the same as the balls.” Rings were certainly not a popular prop during the 1800s, though. Much more popular were hoops and plates. A modern style juggling ring is really a hybrid of these two props, maintaining the size and flatness of a plate and the overall look and function of a hoop. Performers of the Gentleman juggler era, such as Cinquevalli, Kara and Salerno, and other early performers commonly juggled plates. They did so starting at least as early as the 1880s. Hoop juggling can be traced to around 1887, when William Everhart started to perform with them. Click here to read about Everhart.
At first glance, some might think that a ring is just a smaller hoop, but that is not really what separates the two. A hoop is wider, or at least roughly as wide, on it’s edge as it is between the inside of the hoop and the outside of the hoop (the grip width). A ring is very thin on its edge and fairly wide on its grip width. In other words, a ring is like a flat disc with the middle cut out. To clarify the difference, the picture below shows one of Rudy Horn’s wooden rings from 1942 inside of one of Bob Bramson’s wooden hoops.
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 are the ring and hoop sections of the book.
Note that the rings are described as being “very similar to plates”, which more or less describes the flat props we now consider rings.
The oldest image of what might be juggling rings, as apposed to small hoops, comes from the Otto Maurer’s Catalogue of Fine Juggler Goods, which dates back to the late 1880s or early 1890s. Below is that illustration.
There are no known photos of any juggler using modern style 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.
Here is another photo of similar discs.
It was during the 1930s that rings became popular among jugglers. Some of the earliest well-known ring jugglers were Jenny Jaeger, Angelo Piccinelli, Italo Medini, Freddy Zay, and the 2 Langers. Below are photos of those jugglers using rings from that period.
These early rings were usually made of wood and wrapped with tape or painted, but as Anglo’s book indicates, some were made of metal. Below are just a few examples of early wooden or metal rings from the Museum of Juggling History.
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 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.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll examine many innovative and novelty rings that have been used in the past 70 years. Some of these have never been seen before and I think you’ll find them quite interesting.