‘The Circus Is Coming!’ Circus Couriers Whet Communities’ Appetites

This 1938 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey courier is 16 pages in length and is fairly common.

This 1938 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey courier is fairly common.

The back of the 1938 courier. You can often find if for as little as $10.

The back of the 1938 courier. You can often find if for as little as $10.

“The circus is coming!” It was the cry of every kid who heard the news that the circus was coming to their town.

And how did they learn this news? They saw the colorful posters that covered the buildings in town and could pick up a circus courier to take home and spend hours studying and dreaming about running away to join the circus. Their imaginations took wing while reading the stories and scrutinizing the lavish illustrations encased in the courier.
Circus couriers are often misidentified as circus programs on online auction sites. A circus program was sold at the show. For more information on programs see my article titled Circus Programs: Souvenir Magazines a Colorful and Plentiful Collectible.

Circus couriers came in many formats. Generally they were booklets with as few as four pages or as many as 48 or more. Some were printed in a newspaper format. A circus courier was free and was distributed by the thousands in each town where the show was scheduled to appear. Many of the larger circuses would print a million or more couriers each year. They are easy to identify because there is an area on the courier with the show day and date along with the name of the town where the show will be appearing. The couriers were printed at the beginning of the season with that section left blank. Then it was overprinted for each town in which the circus played. That’s why you can sometimes find a courier with that area still blank.

Because the couriers were printed in such large quantities, the cost was very low–sometimes less than a penny each. In the 1890s Ringling Bros. had an eight-page courier that cost $5 per thousand or a half-cent each. When the billposters arrived to plaster the town with posters, they also distributed their bundles of couriers to every business establishment they could find. Local boys were hired to take them to every home in town. Because postal bulk rates were so low, the U.S. Postal Service was also used to mail the couriers to local residents.

Below are several examples of circus couriers:

An example of stock graphics provided by courier printers. Notice the two covers in the first image are identical except for the show title and the owner portraits. There's a blank area on the bottom of the covers to imprint the show day, date and location.

An example of stock graphics provided by courier printers. The imagez are identical except for the show title and the owner portraits. There's a blank area on the bottom to imprint the show day, date and location.

 The center of this sotck courier showed various acts in the three rings and more. Even if the circus used the courier, there was no guarantee that it would have all the acts depicted.

The center of this stock courier showed various acts in the three rings and more. Even if the circus used the courier, there was no guarantee that it would have all the acts depicted.

The back of a stock courier. This particular exdample is eight pages in length and is valued at $25 to $50.

The back of a stock courier. This particular example is eight pages in length and is valued at $25 to $50.


Notice the blank area on the bottom of this Al G. Barnes four-page courier. The printed text says: Will Exhibit At. The blank area is available to print the show day, date and location. It's value is about $25.

Notice the blank area on the bottom of this Al G. Barnes four-page courier. The printed text says: Will Exhibit At. The blank area is available to print the show day, date and location. It's value is about $25.

This 1903 Barnum & Bailey courier is titled Arenic World. It has 24 pages filled with illustrations and stories and is printed in all black and white. The value is $50 to $75.

This 1903 Barnum & Bailey courier is titled Arenic World. It has 24 pages filled with illustrations and stories and is printed in all black and white. The value is $50 to $75.

This is an extremely rare courier promoting a onetime only appearance of P.T. Barnum & Co.'s Greatest Show and the Great London Circus United with Adam Forepaugh's Circuses, Menageries and Hippodromes at Madison Square Garden in NYC. The 1887 courier had 16 pages with many color lithographed pages inside. Its estimated value would be in excess of $200.

This is an extremely rare courier promoting a onetime only appearance of P.T. Barnum & Co.'s Greatest Show and the Great London Circus United with Adam Forepaugh's Circuses, Menageries and Hippodromes at Madison Square Garden in NYC. The 1887 courier had 16 pages with many color lithographed pages inside. Its estimated value would be in excess of $200.

This is a 20 page courier for the 1917 edition of Ringling Bros. Circus. In 1918 the illustration on the cover of this courier was also used as a poster known as "The Children's Favorite Clown" poster.

This is a 20 page courier for the 1917 edition of Ringling Bros. Circus. In 1918 the illustration on the cover of this courier was also used as a poster known as "The Children's Favorite Clown" poster.

The back of the previous courier, valued at $50 to $100. In 1919 Ringling Bros. Circus was combined with Barnum & Bailey.

The back of the previous courier, valued at $50 to $100. In 1919 Ringling Bros. Circus was combined with Barnum & Bailey.

For a more in-depth look at the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey see Circus Show Names and the Greatest Show Name of All Time.

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