When I was a young boy, I decorated my bedroom walls with circus posters and cut circus pictures out of magazines to fill a scrapbook. However, I never gave serious thought to preserving or categorizing what I found. Over the years, most of those early items were lost or tossed. When I first started to collect circus memorabilia in earnest more than 40 years ago, my entire collection was stored in the bottom drawer of a desk in the living room. The assortment consisted of a few circus programs and a couple of books. As my collection grew, I began to realize the importance of developing a system to create some sort of order.
This was happening in the early 1970s when our family had become friends with John Hurdle, the new curator of the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, Fla. John gave me an overview of how the museum filed its collection. I was particularly interested in paper collectibles (ephemera). Paper items associated with a particular circus were grouped by the museum into categories and filed by show title in each of those categories: e.g. Booklets, Business Forms, Couriers, Heralds, Magazine Articles, Photographs, Postcards, Posters, Programs, Route Books, Route Sheets and Cards, Tickets, Trade Cards and others.
I decided to use a similar system for my own growing collection. Books, of course would be stored on bookshelves by subject matter. The majority of my collection consisted of reference material, so I didn’t concentrate on collecting posters. The few that I had were framed and displayed in my office and the living room.
My circus books fill one wall of shelves in the living room.
Several years later I became friends with Charles Phillip “Chappie” Fox when he moved to Florida to accept a key position at the new theme park, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World. Chappie was a well-known circus historian and the author of more than 30 books. In 1983, he was instrumental in having me hired by the Circus World park as communications manager. In one of my visits to Chappie’s home, I discovered he had a different filing system for his collection that I later adopted for my own.
Using Chappie’s system—which can be used for any collectible subject, not just circus memorabilia—all ephemera that can be stored in filing cabinets has been organized into two sections. First are the file folders for various circuses, filed in alphabetical order by show name. In each folder are all items associated with that show. Of course, for larger circuses it is necessary to have multiple file folders, breaking down the items by sub-categories. For example, the single file folder I made for Campbell Bros. Circus contains a booklet with a history of the show, a couple of newspaper advertisements, a photograph, a 1939 route card and a hand-written diary compiled by a performer who was on the show in 1910. The file folders for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey fill several file drawers with folders for several hundred sub-categories. Under Ringling-Barnum there are file folders for programs, couriers, route books, etc., as well as folders for specific events like the 1944 fire and the final performance under canvas on July 16, 1956.
The second section of file folders contains categories that are not related to a specific circus. Avid collectors uncover many odd and unusual items along with those that are common and easy to find. Keeping organized requires finding a place to file everything so you can find it easily when you need it. Here are just a few examples of the hundreds of file folders in the second section within my own collection:
Advertising – Circus Theme – Non-Circus Products: The title of this folder is self-explanatory. It contains advertisements, brochures, annual reports, etc. with a circus theme, but for a non-circus product. The circus has always been poplar in America and many companies use colorful circus artwork to promote their products and services.
AGVA vs. Ringling: A single flyer from the 1950s is filed in this folder printed by the American Guild of Variety Artists (AFL-CIO) explaining their dispute with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. A copy of this flyer is also filed in the first section of files under Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey – AGVA vs. Ringling.
Al Ringling Theatre: Al Ringling was one of the five Ringling Brothers. The Al Ringling Theatre opened in Ringling’s home town of Baraboo, Wis. in November 1915 and has been in continuous operation since that date. This folder contains programs, brochures, letterhead and other information about the theatre.
Animals: Within this category are files for animals from bears to zebras. Within each animal category there are individual folders for specific animals where necessary. For instance the Animals – Elephants General folder is followed by Animals – Elephants – Jumbo; Animals – Elephants – King Tusk; Animals – Elephants – Romeo & Juliette; Animals – Elephants – Ringling Elephant Center; and Animals – Elephants – White Elephant. Following the Animals – Gorilla General folder there’s a file titled Animals – Gorillas – Gargantua. And of course there’s a folder for Animals – The Living Unicorn.
Artwork: This folder contains original artwork and prints as well as circus art that has appeared in magazines and other printed pieces. Because all of these folders are in a standard sized file cabinet there are items that are too large to file here. As with some other folders, there is a sheet that lists other artwork and where it can be found (large flat folder, etc.)
Beggs Wagon Co.: Beggs was located in Kansas City, Mo. and manufactured show wagons. One of its early catalogs (1910) was reproduced in 1973 and widely circulated. This file contains one of those catalogues and an original letterhead.
Celebrities and the Circus: In 1955 Marilyn Monroe visited Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it was appearing at Madison Square Garden. This folder has information about that visit and photos and magazine articles about other celebrities at the circus from the 1930s to present day.
Circus Fan Organizations: There are separate files for the various fan organizations. Circus Historical Society, Circus Fans of America, Circus Model Builders and Windjammers. For more information about these organizations see one of my previous articles Circus Collector Fan Organizations.
Executives: The Executives section includes file folders for many well-known names—Barnum, Ringling, North and Feld, all circus owners, as well as managers like PR man Dexter Fellows, Circus Veterinarian J. Y. Henderson and General Manager Art Concello. It should be noted that photos and information about Art Concello as General Manager are filed here, but photos and information about Art Concello as a performer are filed under Performers – Aerial Acts.
Motion Pictures – TV Shows and Series: There are individual file folders within these categories with photos, press kits and a variety of advertising materials for individual motion pictures and television shows with a circus theme.
Performers: This section is broken down into types of acts with sub-folders for specific performers. The Performers – Clowns General folder is followed by Performers – Clowns – Jacobs, Lou; Performers – Clowns – Kelly, Emmett; and folders for other clowns by name.
Side Shows: Within this folder are examples of the many souvenir items sold by those appearing in the circus side show. The file also has photos of side show tents and banner lines and magazine articles about side shows.
I’ve given you a couple of methods to sort and file your circus memorabilia collection, but how should the collection be preserved? The general rule is to place paper items in archival quality sleeves when filing. These are available in various sizes and with a quick Internet search you will find many companies that sell a variety of products.
Circus posters should be linen-backed and stored in a flat file or individually rolled. My preferred way to store them is to display them, properly framed with UV-resistant glass or Plexiglas with acid-free matting and backing—always out of direct sunlight. There are many sites on the Internet with detailed information about backing, storing and framing posters.
Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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