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Mail-Order Circus: The Greatest Show on Earth in Cardboard Miniature

by Larry Kellogg (02/07/11).

Lever Brothers Company full color advertisements appeared in national magazines and featured famous Ringling clown Lou Jacobs. The advertisement alone is valued at $10.

Twenty-five cents and two box tops from Lever products and once got you a 35-piece, punch-out circus by mail; and not just any circus, mind you, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” That’s what the magazine advertisement promised to children of all ages in 1948.

Premium offers have always been popular. Lots of them came from cereal companies who marketed their products to kids. Some premiums came packed right in the box, while others were eagerly awaited from the postman after mailing in a few cents and one or more box tops. Many premiums from the 1930s, ’40s & ’50s had a circus theme, but most were generic. The 35-piece Ringling Circus offered by Lever was out of the ordinary. Few people today appreciate its significance.

Over the past several years this set has been offered on eBay and other Internet sites. The highest auction price I’ve seen was $63.25 in 2008. It has also sold for as little as $5, but those are usually incomplete sets. Several factors determine price, condition being the most obvious. A complete unassembled set in the original envelope would be the most desirable.

The front of the envelope had an image of a generic clown.

The back showed a drawing of the complete, assembled set.

Inside the envelope there were four panels with punch-out pieces. Printed on those sections were instructions for assembly:

This panel contained Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua figures and their cage (more about this later). It also had equestrians, clowns, a tiger, a horse, a performing bear and a side show ticket-booth with a talker.

NOTE:Talkers are not “barkers”—for more information about circus terms, see a previous article on Circus Lingo.

Another cage was printed on this panel, along with a lion for the cage. Other figures were an additional side-show ticket-booth, elephants doing a long mount, trained seals and comic performing animals.

This was the largest panel, dominated by the Big Top. On the ends were Side Show banner lines.

The smallest panel had a ringmaster, clowns and a performing lion. A tear-off order blank on the end gave you a chance to order additional sets.


The Gargantua panel.

The Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua cage. They were noteworthy because they were major features in 1948.

The Toto panel.

To read more about Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua, click through to Circus Animal Stars.

Mr. & Mrs. Gargantua were pictured on the cover of the 1948 Ringling Route Book, the same year the Lever punch-out circus was offered. This Route Book is valued at $20-$25.

For more information about circus Route Books, see Circus Route Books – A Record of the Past.

The two side show banner lines ballyhooed actual attractions that were featured in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Side Show, most from the 1948 season:

Checking Ringling Route Books, we find entries that match these four images: Mr. & Mrs. Fischer, Tallest Married Couple (1948); Louise Long, Sword Swallower (1944); Kutty Singlee, Fire Proof Man (1948); Betty Broadbent, Tattooed Girl (1947). Bettina pictured above may be Betty Broadbent. I can’t find any information about a tattooed lady named Bettina.

This is an actual photo of a Ringling Side Show banner line in 1946. Note Mr. & Mrs. Fischer on the far left. (Photo courtesy of Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, Fla., Tibbals Digital Collection)

Ringling Route Book descriptions match the images on this banner line: Harry Doll, Daisy Doll, Tiny Doll, Gracie Doll, World’s Most Famous Midget Entertainers (1948) (Side Show Banners for members of the Doll Family often used wording like “Little People in Tiny Town”); Korina, Trainer of Enormous Snakes (1948); (Hawaiian dancers and performers did not appear in the 1948 Ringling Side Show but they were a typical Side Show attraction); Baby Irene Parry, Fat Girl (1948).

The full-page, magazine advertisement promoting the punch-out circus read: “It’s an official replica! It’s endorsed by John Ringling North, President of the circus.”

This endorsement was printed on the top of the cardboard circus Big Top.

I purchased my 35-piece Ringling Circus at an out-of-the-way antique shop in Central City, Colo., almost 40 years ago when I was in Denver on business. The shop owner had a large stack of the envelopes for only $5 each. Hindsight’s always better. Sure wish I had bought all of them.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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