The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Coloring Book has a colorful cover, but is filled with inconsistencies.
Most kids enjoy spending time coloring inside the lines of images in simple, inexpensive coloring books. Circus coloring books may be big sellers at the concession stand, but they are not high on the list of circus memorabilia sought by serious collectors. Many of them are generic, often printed on newsprint, with a few pages of clowns, wild animals and circus acts. The small circuses seldom had the name of their show printed on the coloring book. You could find the same book on any one of a dozen different shows.
There are a few collectible circus coloring books worth mentioning, however. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future article. For now I’d like to tell you about an extremely unusual circus coloring book—one that has generated a lot of questions. In more than 50 years of collecting circus memorabilia I had never seen this coloring book until recently, when one turned up on eBay. It turns out I was the only serious bidder, winning the auction for less than $10.
According to the book’s title page, it’s “A Youth’s History of the American Circus From 50 B.C. in Rome to Now.” Copyrighted by Sid Holmes in 1950, it claims to be “Compiled, Published and Distributed Under Special Permission” of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. When I read that, that’s when my questions started. Was the coloring book really authorized by Ringling and was it actually sold on the show? I had considerable doubt.
When the book arrived, I took it to my contacts at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla. to see if they knew anything about it. Surprise! They had never seen the book. A similar response came from another long-time collector and circus historian in the area. So, what made me so skeptical? Errors. Inconsistencies. Things that just didn’t add up:
The title page says there are “36 pages of Circus Episodes to be Painted by you.” But the cover says there are 35 drawings to paint or color. Was it 36 or 35? The correct answer is 36.
• On the title page, the show’s name is spelled “Ringling Brothers’ & Barnum & Bailey’s Combined Shows, Inc.” The official title never included apostrophes after Brothers and Bailey. This error was made throughout book, including the cover with the apostrophe sometimes appearing only after Bailey.
• On the page with illustrations of clowns, Emmett Kelly is incorrectly spelled Kelley. Paul Jung is spelled Yung.
• The price of the coloring book is shown as 50 cents on the cover. However the Ringling Souvenir Program for the same year (1950) cost only 25 cents.
• The cover says “This special circus edition may be had at the regular performances only.” But the cover also says “Deluxe Editions of this amazing book on sale wherever books are sold or from publishers direct. See Title Page inside.” The implication suggests that a “better,” maybe a hardback version is also available. When you look at the title page there’s no information on how to contact the publisher.
The text in the coloring book tries to tell the story of the circus beginning in Rome up to 1950. It’s filled with facts but rambles. The 56 amateurish drawings help illustrate the story but some of the drawings are laughable.
Two pages in the book are devoted to the Great Gargantua. This one shows the gorilla, dead in his cage.
Young boys carrying water to the elephants is an oft told myth. It would take an army of boys to carry enough water to satisfy the Ringling herd. In 1950 the show had 28 elephants.
This drawing shows John Ringling North, his brother Henry Ringling North and their "mother" Ida Ringling North. Ida was the sister of the Ringling Brothers.
My speculation is that Sid Holmes had this idea and printed a limited number as a proposal for Ringling but the deal was never completed. If this coloring book had been sold on the show in 1950 it should be a common item. Programs from that year are easy to find and other printed Ringling material from the same time period is plentiful. This 1950 coloring book seems to be nonexistent. The copy I have was not purchased on the show. An inscription on the inside cover shows that it was a gift of Sid Holmes to a friend.
If anyone has any information about the coloring book, I would be grateful to hear from you.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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