‘Come See the Strange, the Unusual . . . the Circus Side Show Collectibles’
Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls,” by Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell, has dozens of illustrations of the colorful side-show banners. Many are full-page illustrations with several fold-out pages. It comes in paperback and hardback and sells for $25 to $35.
The circus side show dominated the midway. The flashy banner line and the talker (not a barker) shouted about the wonders to be seen on the inside: “. . . the strange and the unusual . . . the giant and the midget family, the sword swallower, the fire eater, the snake charmer and the magician . . . they are all alive and on the inside.”
Many different attractions fall into this category. The pit show featured a single attraction like a giant rat or a two headed calf or even an inanimate object like the Bonnie & Clyde car. Some side shows featured a motordrome or a girlie show or monkeys racing hot-rod, but these were typically on carnivals.
Usually, when you think of a side show, you are thinking of what was called the “ten-in-one.” This was a series of individual acts in a single tent for a single price of admission. The crowd would go from stage to stage to see each attraction. The side show was made up of freaks—human oddities who were born with deformities. These included the giant, the midget family, the armless wonder and more. There were made-freaks, like the tattooed man or the fat lady. And there were working acts such as the sword swallower, the Punch and Judy show or the Hawaiian dancers.
The four members of the Doll Family—three sisters and a brother—who came to the U.S. from Germany. They appeared in the classic film, “Freaks.” For years they were featured on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow. This pitch card is valued at $10 to $20.
Gottlieb and Alfreda Fischer were billed as the only married giant couple and appeared in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow. This is a real photo postcard and is valued at $30 to $50.
Each of the individual attractions in a large side show would sell items to earn extra money. Most sold pitch cards with photos or maybe brief life histories. The giant almost always sold a giant ring. The magician sold a small bag of tricks. These items make up the bulk of the collectibles associated with the side show.
Besides these souvenirs, a much sought after side show collectible is the canvas banner. Unfortunately, because of their size, they are difficult to display. For this reason they are avoided by many collectors of circus memorabilia. The most popular banners are those signed by well-known artists such as Fred Johnson, Snap Wyatt and Johnny Meah. A Fred Johnson banner of Brenda Beatty the Bearded Lady with text only sold on the internet for $1,000. A Johnson banner for the same attraction with artwork sold for $2,999. Even unsigned banners bring prices in the hundreds of dollars.
This pitch card illustrates how some side show souvenirs included a mini-history. On this card is an explanation of the difference between a midget and a dwarf. Princess Ann, billed as “Tiny Lady,” was a midget. Value is $10 or less.
Pictured here are several giant rings sold by side-show giants. The ring on top is made of plastic and was sold by Johann K. Petursson, who was billed as the Icelandic Giant. He appeared in circus and carnival sideshows. This ring is valued at about $10. The other rings are made of metal. They commemorate Jack Earle ($10 to $30), J.G. Tarver ($10 to $40), Al Tomaini ($30 to $70) and Gilbert Reichert ($20 to $35).
As a side note, the side show is primarily responsible for the public’s confusion between circuses and carnivals. Both travelling attractions had side shows. But the carnival also included rides and games of chance. The carnival would usually stay in an area for a week or longer. It often exhibited in conjunction with a county or state fair. The circus had a side show, but the heart of circus was the traveling menagerie and the performance under the big top. The circus was in most towns for only a day, then on to a new town for tomorrow’s show.
The book “Seeing Is Believing,” by A.W. Stencell, is an excellent reference on the American sideshow. It is filled with illustrations and descriptions of all the different types of sideshows. The book sells for around $25.
For further reading:
• “Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls – Side Show Banners of the Great American Midway,” by Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell. Copyright 1995 by Hardy Marks Publications.
• “Seeing is Believing – America’s Sideshows,” by A.W.Stencell. Copyright 2002 by ECW Press.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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