Let’s Go to The Circus!

Let’s Go to The Circus! Cool Circus Collectibles and a Brief History of the Circus

A Brief History of the Circus

∙Philip Astley is credited as the father of the modern circus.

∙In 1768, Astley, a skilled equestrian, began performing exhibitions of trick horse riding in an open field called Ha’Penny Hatch on the south side of the Thames River.

∙In 1770, he hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between the equestrian demonstrations and thus chanced on the format which was later named a “circus”.

∙Performances developed significantly over the next fifty years, with large-scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature.

∙The traditional format, in which a ringmaster introduces a variety of choreographed acts set to music, developed in the latter part of the 19th century and remained the dominant format until the 1970s.

∙The Englishman John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the United States.

∙He began his theatrical career with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780’s and travelled from England in 1792 to establish his first circus in Philadelphia.

∙The first circus building in the US opened on 3 April 1793 in Philadelphia, where Ricketts gave America’s first complete circus performance.

∙ George Washington attended a performance there later that season.

The Evolution of the American Circus

∙In the Americas during the first two decades of the 19th century, the Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities it visited.

∙Victor Pépin, a native New Yorker, was the first American to operate a major circus in the United States.

∙Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States.

∙In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance.

∙Circus pioneer Dan Rice was the most famous pre-Civil War circus clown, popularizing such expressions as “The One-Horse Show” and “Hey, Rube!”.

∙The American circus was revolutionized by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched the travelling P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus, the first freak show.

∙Coup also introduced the first multiple-ring circuses and was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus between towns.

Barnum & Bailey’s Lasting Impact

∙After an 1881 merger with James Anthony Bailey and James L. Hutchinson’s circus and Barnum’s death in 1891, his circus travelled to Europe as the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth, where it toured from 1897 to 1902, impressing other circus owners with its large scale, its touring techniques (including the tent and circus train), and its combination of circus acts, a zoological exhibition, and a freak show. This format was adopted by European circuses at the turn of the 20th century.

∙From the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, travelling circuses were a major form of spectator entertainment in the US and attracted huge attention whenever they arrived in a city.

∙After World War II, the popularity of the circus declined as new forms of entertainment (such as television) arrived and the public’s tastes changed.

∙From the 1960s onward, circuses attracted growing criticism from animal rights activists.

∙Many circuses went out of business or were forced to merge with other circus companies.

∙Nonetheless, a good number of travelling circuses are still active in various parts of the world, ranging from small family enterprises to three-ring extravaganzas.

∙“Collecting circus items remains a vibrant and colorful hobby, especially paper products—photographs, posters, literature, business records—and artifacts. The grandiosity of the Big Top, with its music and artistry, resonates still in the heart of every collector.”

∙“The demand for circus memorabilia has skyrocketed in recent years because of a combination of nostalgia and recognition of the unique artwork that was created in those days of mass market,” said Chris Berry, Vice-President of the Circus Historical Society.

∙“For example, Jack LeClair, a well-known twentieth-century clown, drew a schematic of a “fat suit,” for himself. If a collector obtains the “fat suit,” a photograph of the clown wearing it, and LeClair’s schematic, “that’s auction magic,” Hollifield said, telling the story when the clown wore the outfit, why he wore it, and its historical significance.”

Circus Posters & Ephemera

∙“Few people collected circus posters back in the day before the 1930s. “Many early posters don’t exist anymore because they weren’t meant to be saved…”

∙For example, P.T. Barnum’s advance team would plaster thousands of posters on anything standing still within a twenty-five-mile radius of circus venues leading up to the event. But these colorful, vibrant posters slapped on barns, sheds and shop windows were only expected to survive a couple of weeks.

∙Circus posters from the 1930s and ’40s are excellent to collect. Although most were used, many remain. Berry said, “The value of these posters has shot up in recent years…An excellent starting price for a one sheet ’30s authentic poster is $600 whereas 15 years it acquired $300.”

∙Reproductions, however, run rampant. Most replicas are from after the 1960s.

∙In the 1970s, the Ringling Bros. sold reproductions at performances.

∙Berry suggests collectors always check poster dimensions. “An authentic poster measures 42” long x 28” wide for a one sheet or has dimensions of multiples or fractions of that,” he said.

∙Check if a poster has a “P” letter in its margin followed by a stock number. An authentic circus poster does not. Lastly, using a jeweler’s loupe, examine the poster. A reproduction will have pixelation.

Circus Costumes & Props

∙Some other great pieces of Circus memorabilia to collect are the props and costumes used by performers in the show.

∙Items like strongman weights, acrobat’s tutus, clown’s shoes and rings (shown to the right) are other great items to look out for.

∙The set show to the right is an original Barnum & Bailey Clown’s leather shoes and juggling rings that sold at auction in March of 2018 for $2400!

Circus Themed Toys

∙Circus themed toys are also a great and sometimes highly valuable Circus Collectibles.

∙With the fascination the circus held with children, it is no wonder that an entire industry of toy makers made toys to appeal to this national zeal for the Circus.

∙Makers such as Hubley, Kenton and Marx made lovely cast iron and tin lithograph toys for children to play out their Circus dreams.

∙This Hubley cast iron Monkey Cage wagon sold at auction back in 2014 for a whopping $136,800!!!!

Marx Super Circus


Sold at Auction June 6th, 2022 – $499.00


Sold at Auction July 12th, 2022 – $1,037