A hand-penned or typed letter from a circus is like receiving a work of art in the mail. Circus owners were never shy about advertising their shows, and even their colorful letterhead extolled the wonders of their circuses. And they didn’t stop there. The envelopes, too, were just as artful, so that all the mail carriers along the way got a glimpse of their greatness.
Many examples of circus letterhead and envelopes can be found for less than $10, but some older examples of popular shows can bring much higher prices. If the letter happens to be signed by a famous owner, its value would be considerably more.
This isn’t a circus letterhead, but it is circus related—a letter from Barnum’s famous American Museum in New York City. Value today is $150-$200. The condition brings the price down a bit, but because it is signed by Barnum, it is very collectible.
Barnum & Bailey was purchased by the Ringling Bros. in 1907, but they were operated separately until 1919, when the two shows combined. This letterhead is valued at $50-75.
This Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows letterhead is valued at $75-100.
Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth combined in 1919. A poster from that year called it “The Amusement Surprise of the Century.” To read a brief history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey see my article Circus Show Names and the Greatest Show Name of All Time. Since 1919, many letterhead designs have been used by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
This letterhead or a variation of this design is probably the most common. This particular one was from the time when the Winter Quarters was still in Sarasota, Fla. and the show had offices in New York City and Chicago. Value is $5-10.
Many variations have a department head title and name printed on the letterhead. Other letterheads with this design are engraved instead of printed. The letterhead shown here has the name Romulus Portwood, who was hired for the Gunther Gebel-Williams Farewell Tour (1989-90) to coordinate media events involving Gunther. Value is $10-15.
In more recent years this logo has appeared on Ringling letterhead. Value is $5 or less.
This is one of the many Ringling Bros. designs used for media releases mailed to newspapers, radio and television stations. Value is under $5.
This envelope is large enough to mail 8-X-10 photos along with media releases. The envelope features images of clowns Frosty Little, Lou Jacobs, Peggy Williams and Richard Fick. Value is $5-10.
In 1974 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey opened a theme park in central Florida. For more information about the park and Circus World collectibles including two examples of their beautiful letterhead, see my article: Reunion Renews Interest in Circus World Memorabilia.
The Gollmar Brothers were cousins of the Ringling Brothers and, like the Ringlings, based their show in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They started traveling in 1891 and operated on and off through the mid 1920s.
Value of this Gollmar letterhead and matching envelope is $40-50.
The American Circus Corporation was a circus holding company owned by Jerry Mugivan and Bert Bowers. It was in operation during the 1920s. In 1929 the corporation was purchased by John Ringling.
American Circus Corporation front.
American Circus Corporation inside.
American Circus Corporation back.
Probably the most elaborate circus letterhead is this 11-inch-by-17-inch piece printed by the American Circus Corporation. The three images above show the front, inside and back. When folded in half the front was used for the letter portion. The inside and back had images and text about the shows owned by the corporation. Originals of this letterhead have sold for as little as $5 but typically bring between $40 and $50.
Below is a small selection of letterhead and envelopes from circuses big and small. Most are valued at $5-$10, but prices sometimes reach as high as $25.
This matching letterhead and envelope for Al G. Barnes Circus is dated 1935.
The images were designed in the late 1920s.
Two examples of Lee Bros. Circus letterhead are shown here. Louis Chase’s name appears on the lower sheet. He was manager of the show in 1926.
This envelope matches one of the Lee Bros. letterhead sheets. The graphics are so large there is hardly any room left for a stamp and address.
Mills Bros. Circus operated from 1940 to 1967.
This letterhead is from 1943, when E.E. Coleman was manager of M.L. Clark & Sons Circus. The show operated off and on from 1883 to 1946.
Very little room is left on this letterhead for the message.
The Frank J. Walter Circus was only on the road from 1937 to 1940.
Here are three examples of letterhead from the Clyde Beatty Circus. The bottom letterhead has the name Mrs. Shirley Carroll, Director of Radio & Television. She held that position in 1956.
The graphic image on this Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus letterhead was created and signed by the famous circus press agent Roland Butler.
Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. was a large truck show and was billed as the 2nd Largest Circus. When I was growing up in the 1950s, this circus made regular stops in my home town of Council Grove, Kan.
Cole Bros. Circus was a major railroad show. This simple letterhead has the name Jack S. Smith, Advertising Car 1. Smith was a lithographer for the show in the 1940s.
This 1948 Cole Bros. envelope has a cut of elephants doing the long mount.
Circus Bartok traveled from 1967 to 1972.
Barney O’Hern Circus was only on the road for one year—1946.
You can tell by the date area on this letterhead that it was printed in the 1930s. The show ceased operation in 1945.
Adams and Sells Circus traveled in 1960 and 61. Earlier versions of the show had the titles Adams Bros. Circus and Adams Bros. and Sells Bros. Circus.
Daily Bros. Circus operated 1940-1950, 1963-1964 & 1974-1975. This letterhead is from the early years when it was a railroad circus.
Cristiani Bros. Circus traveled from 1956 to 1960. It was owned by the famous bareback riding family, the Cristianis, who first came to America in 1934 to perform with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
Many circus performers had their own special letterhead and envelopes designed to advertise their act. This envelope is from the 1960s. William H. Woodcock (1904-1963) was a legendary elephant trainer.
Woodcock’s son, William “Buckles” Woodcock, carried on the tradition presenting elephants in almost every major American circus. Buckles’ Blog is a web site for the discussion of circus history all over the world.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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