Circus Route Books – A Record of the Past
There are a thousand and one stories under the Big Top, and some of them are actually true. The problem is that circus public relations people love to exaggerate and embellish. In the mind of a press agent, a herd of elephants consists of only two or three of the giant beasts, so while nine herds of elephants sounds like a lot, there are fewer than you think.
Al G. Barnes Circus' official route card for the 1928 season
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Route Books
Title Page of Barnum & Bailey Eurpean Tour Route Book
Consider the side show giant. The banner out front describes an 8-foot, 10-inch figure, but if you measure him in his stocking feet, he may be barely 8 feet tall. In 1901 Ringling Bros. Circus featured the last living giraffe. The show’s advertisements read:
“Ringling Bros. $20,000 Animal Feature. Only giraffe known to exist in the entire world. Last of his kind, human eyes will never behold another. Last chance to see the last specimen. When he is gone the giraffe will be extinct.”
Some circus stories are enhanced with every telling. That’s part of the allure of the circus. So how do you sort fact from fancy when researching circus history? One way is to read old circus route books, one of the most sought after circus collectibles. The route book was published at the end of the season and gave a fairly accurate account of the show’s activities for the year. They were sold to those who had been employed on the show that season and often were advertised to circus fans.
The route book had a list of all the personnel on the show, usually broken down by department (ticket wagons, front door, performers, side show, cook house, property dept., etc.). Often stories and photos were included. Usually there was a section of show statistics which listed: total miles traveled; number of railroads used (for railroad shows); length of season; number of cities visited; amount of canvas used; miles of rope used, and so on. An important part of the book was a list of cities visited, which would include date(s) played, name of city and state, railroad used, and number of miles traveled.
Barnum & Bailey 1896 Executive Route Book
Ringling Bros. 1897 Route Book
The most prized route books are those that included a day-by-day diary of activities. Here’s an example of three selected entries from the 1897 Ringling Bros. Route Book (pictured above):
• “Attica, Ind. Monday, August 9th – Very hot. Business good. This was a great day for the lemonade boys. The afternoon house packed the big top. A Japanese woman performer fell from a perch at the dome of the tent to the ground, and sustained a broken arm, lacerated face and internal injuries. She was subsequently sent to Chicago to a hospital and eventually rejoined the show.”
• “York, Neb. Thursday, August 26th – Wind and changeable weather. Business phenomenal. Another town that was “show hungry.” Pinkerton Detective Moore had an encounter with a burglar in the morning, and fired a shot at him. The revolver failed to work after that, or there would probably be one thief less in the world.”
• “Enid, Okla. Territory. Saturday, September 25th. Clear and pleasant. Business tremendous. This is the first big show Enid has ever had. The town is four years and nine days old and is wild about the circus. The afternoon audience was another surprise like that of Beloit, Kan. A good-natured multitude of noisy, yelling, Westerners yelled themselves hoarse with enjoyment at the rare treat the big show afforded them.”
Three route books which contain an abundance of historical information are the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey editions for 1945, 1946 and 1947. In the back of each of these books is a section devoted to dates and towns visited by major shows of the past. The 1945 Route Book gives these statistics for Barnum from 1871 (the first Barnum Show) through 1918—the year before Barnum & Bailey combined with Ringling Bros. The 1946 Route Book gives Ringling routes from 1884 (its first year) through 1918. The 1947 Route Book gives Adam Forepaugh’s tours from 1878 through 1911 and Cooper, Bailey & Co. from 1876 through 1880. Prices on these three route books range from $10 to $25 each. (See images above.)
Beginning in 1940 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey route books had a section in the back that listed dates and towns visited for all seasons going back to 1919 when the two shows combined. (For a brief history on the Ringling/Barnum show titles see my blog Circus Show Names and the Greatest Show Name of All Time.)
Some years a route book would be printed in more than one version, i.e. a hardback and a soft cover edition. There were even elaborate editions printed for show executives. The 1896 Barnum & Bailey Route Book (pictured above) with hand-tooled metal covers was owned by Charles Hutchinson, who was treasurer for that show and later for the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show.
There are also route books that cover more than one year. A great example is the Barnum & Bailey Route Book titled: Four Years In Europe – The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in the Old World – 1897-1901. During those years the show toured Europe. In addition to stories and photos, it has fold-out maps showing the routes traveled. (See image above.) This comprehensive route book and others like it can be valued at several hundred dollars.
In addition to route books, circuses sometimes printed route cards and route sheets. Route cards covered one or more weeks of a tour and were often printed on postcard stock. They were used to mail to friends and relatives so that the performer’s or employee’s personal mail could be sent to the show “en route.” (The Al G. Barnes Route Card shown above covers the dates from Aug. 19 in New Orleans to Sept. 1 in Cameron, Texas.) Route sheets were printed at the conclusion of the show’s season and listed all the towns and dates visited. These served as a souvenir record of the season. These route cards and sheets have values of $1 to $100, depending upon visual appearance, condition and scarcity.