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Ringling Brothers Circus Comes To Town

Ringling Brothers Circus Comes To Town

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

The buzz of excitement filled villages and  towns in the early 20th century as circus posters were plastered on buildings boasting show highlights and people realized the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was coming to town. 

I liked the clowns best of all. Sometimes we stayed out in the wings at the bar and talked to them through the whole performance.
— Pablo Picasso

The long necks of giraffes, the pygmy hippo, the king lions, zebras right up close, the sword swallowers, the world’s smallest people, bearded ladies, clowns and tattooed men.  It was all so fascinating.

The circus gave people a break from the real world. The famous clown Emmett Kelly said people loved the circus because they wanted to laugh and forget their troubles for awhile.             

It was a theater of the impossible.

Hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy, roasted peanuts and fresh lemonade.  Life didn’t get any better and almost everyone wanted to run away and join the circus--at least for a few hours.

“Something about the circus stirs their souls,"  said writer Erin Morgenstern. "They ache for it when it is absent.” 

Problem was early circuses were filled with dens of thieves who stole the wash right off clotheslines.  That idea was commonplace among town’s folks.  People were convinced pickpockets roamed the crowd and employees shortchanged customers. 

Eager customers wanted to see the show but they didn’t want to be robbed.     

Some of the stories were true.  But not every circus was home to criminals.

The Ringling Bros. had to address this issue head on when they started.  So they laid down rules for their employees.

Even when they’re rude, be polite to customers.  No cheating and show girls are not to talk to male patrons. Detectives were also hired to stroll the circus grounds and watch for thieves.   

Other circuses called Ringling the “Sunday school show.”  But it paid off.

Ticket sales swelled and crowds swarmed.  By the 1890s all seven Ringling brothers were involved in the circus and by the 1940s a trip to the circus was a rare treat.

Roman chariots racing around the ring, high wire acts and human cannonballs flying through the air.  Audiences held their breath.  It was a larger-than-life world.  Simply spectacular.

Pablo Picasso loved the circus.  With his face lathered for shaving he sometimes pretended to be a white face clown. His first lover, Rosa Ortiz was a trick rider and his first art dealer, Clovis Sagot, a former clown.

“I liked the clowns best of all,” he said.  “Sometimes we stayed out in the wings at the bar and talked to them through the whole performance.”

Today these side shows are considered cruel, but in the 1940s they were common. 

Circus posters boasting “immense,” “colossal,” and “mammoth,” convinced circus goers that bigger was better. The circus was the first industry to truly capitalize on color lithography.  Many of the early American circus posters were printed by the well-known Strobridge Lithography Co. 

They were never made to stand the test of time and somehow many have.

On Aug. 2 a selection of Ringling Bros. posters went on the block at Swann Auction Galleries.

Here are some current values.

Ringling Bros. Ringling Bros. Circus and Barnum & Bailey Circus Side Show; Erie Litho; circa 1930s; 26 ½ inches by 40 ¼ inches;  $812.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus/ Dorothy Herbert/World’s Most daring Rider; Erie Litho; circa 1935; 27 ¼ inches by 40 ½ inches;  $875.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus/Giraffe Neck Woman From Burma; Central Prg. and Illinois Litho Co; circa 1930s; 27 ¼ inches by 40 inches;  $1,250.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus; features scary tiger Illinois Litho Co; circa 1920s; 27 ½ inches by 40 ¼ inches;  $1,250.

Barnum & Bailey/Chas. Patterson The Human Airplane; The Strobridge Litho Co; 1916; 31 ¾ inches by 38 ¾ inches;  $1,750.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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