Magazine Articles Chronicle Circus Life of Yesterday and Today
by Larry Kellogg (06/08/09).
“Time” Magazine, March 29, 1937 – Wild Animal Trainer Clyde Beatty.
Stories featuring the circus have always been a popular subject for magazines. Collecting these magazines is an inexpensive way to add some spice and details to your Circus Collection. All of the most popular magazines of the past have regularly chronicled circus life. Weekly magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look and Colliers featured circus articles yearly—sometimes several times a year. Even Time, the first weekly news magazine, which began publication in 1923, featured circus stories, including at least three covers.
When I bought my first computer about 20 years ago, I started compiling a data base of magazine articles about the circus. Today that list contains more than 2,200 articles that have appeared in more than 550 different magazines. The copyrighted, 38-page document lists magazines alphabetically from Advertising Age to Youth’s Companion. Each magazine is further sorted chronologically. The list is constantly being updated as new articles are printed and old articles are discovered. It’s a good resource when going to antique malls or flea markets where large quantities of old magazines are being sold. You can purchase a copy of this Circus Magazine Articles Index, through WorthPoint here.
The oldest magazine article in my list appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1844 and tells about General Tom Thumb, Barnum’s diminutive discovery, and Mr. Carter, a lion trainer. The current list has 86 articles from the 1800s. But it’s also up-to-date. More than 90 circus articles have appeared in magazines since the year 2000.
“National Geographic” Magazines, October 1931 and March 1948.
There are many standout articles, such as the two appearing in National Geographic in October 1931 and March 1948. Both of these features were written by F. Beverly Kelley and are filled with black & white and color photos. Kelley joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1930 and worked in the publicity department throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His autobiography, “It Was Better Than Work,” was published in 1982. National Geographic has also published other circus and circus related articles, among them, an in-depth look at an old-time circus, Hoxie Bros., in a May 1972 feature. Most of these issues can be found for less than $10 each.
“Harper’s Weekly,” October 4, 1873 – "The Circus Coming Into Town" – Hand Colored engraving.
“Harper’s Weekly,” February 21, 1864 – “Wedding of Mr. & Mrs. Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb)”.
Many of the articles from the 1800s were published in Harper’s Weekly. This magazine, called “A Journal of Civilization,” was published from 1857 to 1916. Among the most important circus articles were the accounts of the wedding of General Tom Thumb, which was featured on the cover, the burning of Barnum’s American Museum and the death of P.T. Barnum. A story in 1873 entitled “The Circus Coming Into Town,” included a classic cover illustration of a circus parade. Sometimes you can find issues where the engraving has been hand colored, as in the example shown here. Harper’s Weekly issues can be found for $5 to $10 with special issues such as the ones mentioned above bringing as much as $25.
“Life” Magazine, July 28, 1941 – “Wire Walker Hubert Castle and family.”
“Life” Magazine, April 8, 1946 – “World Famous Clown Lou Jacobs.”
Life magazine in its many incarnations is one of the best-known magazines of the past. Originally, it was a humor and general interest magazine first published in 1883. During the early years there were many circus covers by illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Leyendecker and Victor G. Anderson. In 1936, Henry Luce purchased the magazine and beginning in November of that year, it became a weekly news magazine with an emphasis on photos. It remained a weekly until 1972, and during those 30-plus years the magazine ran circus articles in more than 100 issues. Three of those issues featured circus covers. One of the saddest articles, “The Big Top Bows Out Forever,” told the story of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s final performance under the Big Top in 1956. Life magazines from the Henry Luce period are fairly inexpensive, except for the first issue (November 23, 1936), which sells for about $100. That issue has an article about the circus paintings of John Steuart Curry titled “Curry of Kansas.” Most of the other Luce-era magazines are $10 to $30 per issue.
Circus magazine articles provide valuable information for circus historians, and in some cases, incredible inspiration. In May 1952, Popular Mechanics published a story entitled “Here Comes the Circus.” The article featured a diagram of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey 79-car circus train, a layout of the circus grounds and a figure illustrating the rigging and set up of the Big Top tent. A teenager named Howard Tibbals saw this article and it was part of his inspiration to build the largest miniature circus in the world. You can read about Tibbals and his Howard Bros. Circus in my article You Too Can Be A Circus Owner.
If you are serious about collecting circus ephemera, magazine articles from the past and the present will give you an inside look at this fascinating world. They are inexpensive and are widely available to collectors through yard sales, flea markets, antique malls, the internet and other sources. They are a valuable source of historical information.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia