In the world of philately (the study and collection of postage stamps), there are those who concentrate on collecting topical stamps. The list is endless—music, birds, insects, animals, Christmas, sports, presidents and even topics within topics, such as Abraham Lincoln or Little League baseball. In fact there is an organization devoted exclusively to the field of collecting topical stamps. The American Topical Association was founded in 1949 and offers checklists of more than 500 topics.
Circus stamps are an inexpensive and colorful addition to any collection. Not only stamps, but many related items such as first day covers (FDC), first day ceremony programs and invitations to the first day ceremony, special cancels, cachets and postal advertising material add variety to the collection.
The United States has issued just six circus stamps. On May 3, 1966 the Circus stamp was released featuring a clown face. Apparently, unbeknownst to the U.S. Postal Service, the image was that of world famous clown Lou Jacobs. This made Lou the first living person to have his image on a U.S. stamp.
To circus collectors this is known as the Lou Jacobs stamp. Plate blocks of four of this stamp sell for $5 or less. You can often find a full sheet of the stamp for less than $10.
The U.S. Postal Service issues announcement sheets for new release stamps. You can find these with the stamp affixed and a first day cancellation. Prices are less than $5.
This is just one of the numerous envelope designs used for a first day cover of the circus stamp. There are dozens of different designs.
Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey got into the act by printing this oversized card and an envelope with the same artwork to feature the first day cover of the circus stamp.
First day covers for this stamp are usually less than $5.
The post service gives instructions that allow you to send your own envelope or postcard and receive it back with a first day cancel. This can result in many variations and often a one of a kind FDC. The only cost of these covers is the cost of the postage. This FDC was created using an old engraved Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey envelope with the Chicago office address.
The Circus Wagon stamp was printed in two similar but different designs. The stamp with 05USA was issued in coils on August 31, 1990 with a First Day city cancel in Syracuse, New York. On December 8, 1992 the same stamp design was issued in a larger coil, this time with a First Day city cancel in Cincinnati, Ohio. A slight design change was made in 1995 with the text reading USA5¢. This stamp was first cancelled on March 20, 1995 in Kansas City, Missouri.
The circus wagon stamp was issued in large coils so you can collect strips of the stamp. These stamps are valued at 7 cents each.
These three envelopes show the three different cities and dates for the first day of issue cancellations. FDCs like these are less than $5 and can often be found in stamp stores for 50 cents or $1.
On April 6, 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of four circus stamps to commemorate 200 years of circus in America. The block of four featured an aerialist, an elephant, a clown and a ringmaster. Promotional materials had the United States Postal Service and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey logos side-by-side. The First Day dedication was held in front of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. Kenneth Feld, president and producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, was on hand to share remarks.
This set of four stamps was released in 1993 and can be found for less than $5. A full sheet of 40 of these stamps has a face value of $11.60 but has sold on eBay for less than $10.
This Postal Service media kit has the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey logo side-by-side with the U.S. Postal Service logo. On the cover of the kit, the photos by each of the stamps feature actual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performers—aerialist Fatima, the elephant King Tusk, clown Greg DeSanto and ringmaster Jim Ragona.
The kit contained media releases and this photo of King Tusk who was on hand for the first day dedication to give his stamp of approval. Ringmaster Jim Ragona presided over the dedication ceremonies. The kit with its contents is valued at $10-$15.
Even though these are the only United States circus stamps the U.S. Post Office has issued other circus related stamps. In a previous story, Wild West Show Memorabilia Features Great Names of the American West, I wrote about the importance of Wild West show memorabilia to circus collectors. The U.S. Post Service has issued two Buffalo Bill Stamps. One was a single stamp issued June 6, 1988 with a first day of issue in Cody, Wyoming. The second was part of the “Legends of the West” series, released October 18, 1994. That set also had a stamp of Annie Oakley, one of the star performers of Buffalo Bill’s Real Wild West.
These three FDCs show the two Buffalo Bill stamps and the Annie Oakley stamp. Individual stamps like these and even envelopes with first day of issue cancels are worth $1 or less.
The Post Office sold an 80-page book about the Legends of the West series. It included two complete sheets of the stamp set.
The book was filled with illustrations and stories about the “Legends” on the stamps. The book is valued at $20-$25.
While carousels and Ferris wheels weren’t typical attractions at a circus, they have a passing interest to some circus collectors. Carousel animals were featured on a set of four stamps released in 1988 followed by a set of four carousel horses in 1995. In 1998 the U.S. Postal Service began a series called “Celebrate the Century.” Each of the 10 sheets in that series was dedicated to a different decade and contained 15 stamps. The first set celebrating the decade of the 1900s had a stamp of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 with a Ferris wheel in the background.
The ice cream cone was popularized at the St. Louis World’s Fair as shown on this postage stamp. A Ferris wheel is in the background.
The first set of carousel stamps had illustrations of a deer, an armored horse, a camel and a goat all popular merry-go-round animals. All four stamps are on this cachet which has artwork of a carousel. First day covers are also available of each individual animal with the cachet artwork reflecting that animal.
There’s always an interest in special circus cachets, even though the envelope might not have a circus stamp. Cachets usually commemorate a special event or anniversary.
This envelope was cancelled in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1933 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Ringling Bros. Circus. Baraboo was the original winter quarters for the show.
The Fourth of July Circus Parade in Milwaukee was an annual event for many years. The cachet on this envelope indicates it was carried on the Circus Train.
By far the most colorful circus stamps are those that have been issued in foreign countries. That’s the topic of another article titled Collecting Circus Stamps Means a Worldwide Search.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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