Advertisers, Just Like the American Public, Loved the Circus

Not long ago, circus performers were as popular as today’s movie and music stars. Their images appeared regularly in magazine advertisements for non-circus products—everything from cigarettes to musical instruments to insurance policies. The American public has always loved the circus, so it’s not surprising that advertisers would take advantage of the circus’s popularity.

Adding circus advertising to your searches is an easy way to bulk up collection.

A heated Big Top was touted in this ad as a major feature of the 1939 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. General Electric Oil Furnaces provided heat through overhead ducts. These were obviously the same ducts that were used to air cool the tent in the summer. The clown in the ad was Gigon Polidor.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s famous sad-faced clown Emmett Kelly was featured in a 1949 advertisement for Bell Telephone Company. Kelly was so famous that he also appeared in ads for B.F. Goodrich, Union Carbide, Pan American Coffee, Ansco Film and Kodak Film.

Cigarette advertisements often featured movie and music personalities and equally famous circus performers. Ringling’s Norma Fox, better known as La Norma, is seen in this 1950s ad for Camels. The ad appeared in the Ringling’s souvenir program as well as national magazines. Aerialist Antoinette Concello, Mario & Hugo Zacchini and Equestrienne Dorothy Herbert also appeared in Camel ads.

Merle Evans was bandmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for almost 40 years. His picture wasn’t used in this ad, only his famous name. The photo shows trombonist Andrew Grainger who was one of the nearly 30 musicians in the 1951 Big Show Band.

Even images of circus entrepreneurs have been used to advertise products. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company illustrated their 1950s advertisement with P.T. Barnum and the headline “He appealed to the kid in all of us.” When I started my circus collection as a boy, this was the first item I pasted in my scrapbook.

Charles Ringling’s yacht, Zumbrota, was the subject of this 1919 magazine advertisement. Charles was one of the five Ringling Brothers. The ad said: “The Zumbrota was built by Charles L. Seabury & Company for Charles Ringling, of circus fame.” The Zumbrota yacht is still being used today by Adventures at Sea in Marina del Rey, California.

John Ringling North, nephew of the five Ringling Brothers, appeared in many advertisements in the 1940s and 1950s. Products using his image included Alfred of New York Shirts, Bromo Seltzer, Rolex Watches, Thom McAn Shoes and this ad for Rheingold Beer.

Advertisements with circus subject matter fall in to two broad topics. There are those that feature actual circus performers or circuses as seen above. Of course, they are the most popular, but those with generic circus graphics are also collectible.

In the 1930s Beech-Nut Gum and Candies toured the country with six miniature circuses housed in custom-built busses. These two magazines promoted the traveling exhibit. Illustrator Frederic Stanley created the artwork on the ad to the left which featured Rosie Rieffenach, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey bareback rider. The ad on the right uses generic circus art and is not as desirable.

This close-up view of a portion of the ad shows the Beech-Nut Bus. My sister made a note in her diary that on May 4, 1939 she went uptown (Council Grove, Kansas) to spend the evening watching the Beech-Nut Circus. Unfortunately I wasn’t born yet so I missed it! The last remaining bus is owned by the New York State Museum. The Summer 2006 museum magazine, Legacy, published an article about the bus.

This is one of the better advertisements featuring generic circus artwork. The Ivory Soap ad was published in 1913.

Some of these ads ran in the souvenir programs printed by the circuses, but the same ads were often seen in the popular magazines of the day—Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and Colliers—to name a few. Most of these ads can be found for $5 to $10. A few bring higher prices.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.


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