Mystery of the 1883 Ringling Bros. Handbill

1883-ringling-bros-handbillThe five Ringling brothers first entered the tented-circus business in 1884 with a show they called Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers Great Double Shows and Caravan. The boys had been working toward this day for some time. [Note: For a more detailed look at the evolution of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, see my article titled Circus Show Names and the Greatest Show Name of All Time.] Al Ringling had even been performing with several traveling shows beginning in 1879, including Parson and Roy’s Great Palace Show.

In November 1882, the Ringling brothers started a show called The Ringling Classic and Comic Concert Company. For their second season, they opened in Ironton, Wis., on August 20, 1883, with Ringling Bros. Grand Carnival of Fun. These shows played in town halls and opera houses, and featured songs, dancing, comedy sketches and juggling.

Because of this historic beginning, it’s no wonder I was amazed and thrilled to come across an advertisement for an 1883 Ringling Bros. poster. The March 14, 1972, issue of the “Antique Trader” had an advertisement placed by a Chicago antique shop that read:

1883 Ringling Bros.
Rare Early Date
Nice Red & Black “Posters”
Near Mint as They Were
Part of a Small Hoard
Found Several Years Ago.
About 6 inches by 18 inches

I called immediately. The antique dealer confirmed that this was an authentic handbill and had the title “Ringling Bros. Classic and Comic Concert Company—Ringling Bros. Grand Carnival of Fun.” The date at the bottom of the handbill was August 20, 1883, Ironton, Wis. The dealer followed up with a letter, writing:

“Having handled many old paper collectibles over the years:
“1.) The paper looks proper and the yellowing edges right
“2.) They are printed letterpress not offset and were found as a roll . . . most are mint.”

He then called and told me he had sold a few, but still had 44 of the handbills left. So, we negotiated a price for the remaining lot.

I was so excited when they arrived in April. What a find! The following month, I attended the annual convention of Circus Fans Association of America in Sarasota, Fla. To my surprise, there was talk about a great discovery of an 1883 handbill. Two of these had been framed and were presented with great fanfare to the Ringling Museum of the Circus and the Circus Hall of Fame, both located there in Sarasota. I correctly assumed these were some of the handbills sold before my purchase of the rest.

In the ensuing months, I ran advertisements in some of the circus fan magazines hoping to sell a few of the handbills to recoup my investment. Some were sold to well-known circus collectors and historians, including two to Charles Philip “Chappie” Fox, the author of more than 30 books, many about circus history. Fox had just left his position as director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., to become vice president and research director for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World theme park near Orlando, Fla. Everyone was convinced this was an historic find and that the handbills were, indeed, authentic.

Even though all the circus experts were certain, I wanted confirmation. On a business trip to Washington, D.C., in 1976, I made an appointment to meet with an associate curator from the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian Institution. She examined one of the fliers and asked if I would leave it with her. I did, and a month later, she returned the handbill with a letter stating the following:

“I have had more time to examine your poster, and here are my findings:

“The bold red and black letters, ‘Ringling Bros. . . .’ at the top of the sheet are derived from the typeface Cooper Black—a face that was designed in the 1920s. That settles the matter of date very easily.

“It appears to me that these letters are printed from a line-engraving, i.e. A reproduction of printed type, while the program is printed from actual type . . .”

The poster definitely isn’t a reproduction because no original of this poster is known to exist. It is obviously a so-called “fantasy item.” I have shared this story with many historians and collectors, but no one has come up with an answer about its real origin. We may never know. It’s possible it was created by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to promote the 1933 Golden Jubilee Show, perhaps by Roland Butler, who designed the cover for that year’s program. But that’s just a guess. If anyone knows more about this item, I’d love to hear from you.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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