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Circus, Minstrel and Traveling Show Collection

Identifier: M329

Scope and Contents

This collection contains an assortment of circus publications, circus route cards, and promotional materials and posters for minstrel and traveling shows dating from 1894-1953.

This collection would be of special interest to musical theatre historians, circus historians, those interested in African-American history and performance studies, graphic arts and advertising.


  • Creation: 1894-1953

Conditions Governing Access

Noncirculating; available for research

Conditions Governing Use

This collection may be protected from unauthorized copying by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code).

Biographical / Historical

In the second half of the 1800s, the professional business of entertaining and amusing large audiences for profit emerged in the United States. Among these entertainments were the circus, minstrel shows, and traveling variety acts. The circus tradition, a venue of popular entertainment for more than 4000 years, derives its name from the Latin word "circulus" meaning circle. The circle form was the preferred path of racing Roman chariots. The modern day circus was initiated in 1768, by Philip Astley (1742-1814), an English equestrian enthusiast and exhibitor. In America, a circus known as Rickett's opened in Philadelphia as early as 1792, but the proliferation and popularity of circus entertainment did not fully manifest until the latter half of the 1800s, with over a hundred circuses in existence. The carnival, like the circus, is part of the outdoor amusement industry; however, the carnival is distinct from the circus given its most identifiable feature, the midway. The carnival midway consists of such amusements as sideshows exhibiting human or animal oddities, games of chance, tests of skill, rides such as the Ferris wheel and the carousel. The word "carnival" is derived from the Greek mythological figure Carneus, god of flocks and herds who oversaw agricultural and military festivals. Throughout history, a local fair complete with carnival was deemed a necessary break in the monotony of human existence. Both of the carnival and the circus survive today as an enduring form of family entertainment. The minstrel show dates from 1828, when Thomas D. Rice created the "Jim Crow" song and dance routine. The minstrel shows were first performed by white performers in blackface and entertained by the use of ethnic satire, folk-based themes and exaggerated distortions of African-American life. Eventually, black performers replaced white performers in a trend toward cultural authenticity. The Minstrel show reached the peak of its popularity between 1850-1870, but shows continued to tour, primarily in southern states, until the early 1900s. Traveling shows, or variety acts, had old world antecedents in entertainment far too numerous to mention herein. However, the variety show, as the name implies, was comprised of short acts of various types which showcased singing, dancing and comic routines with no connected story or unifying theme. The decline of traveling variety acts by the 1930s is usually attributed to the advent of radio and a burgeoning movie industry.

Barnum and Bailey Circus:

The Barnum and Bailey Circus (Bridgeport, Connecticut) was founded by Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum's first circus employment was as a ticket collector for the Aaron Turner Circus in 1836. A life-long entrepreneur, he ran a museum in New York specializing in freak shows and is credited for using a flamboyant style of advertising which contributed to modern day characterizations of show business. In 1881, he joined with his competition James Anthony Bailey (1847-1906) to found the Barnum and Bailey circus, touted as "the Greatest Show on Earth."

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus:

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (Sarasota, Florida) originated with Charles Ringling (1863-1926). Ringling was born in McGregor, Iowa, one of seven sons. The name "Ringling" was an anglicization of the German family name "Rungeling." Charles, with brothers Otto, Albert C., Alfred T., and John, presented their first circus in 1882 at a hall in Mazonmanie, Wisconsin. In 1884, they launched a traveling tent circus. By 1905, a series of lucrative business deals enabled the brothers to absorb some of their competition, and on July 8, 1907, the Ringlings purchased their largest competitor, Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000 after the death of James A. Bailey. In 1957, economic survival forced a reorganization and a transition to bookings in permanent indoor arenas exclusively. In 1967, Irvin Feld purchased the struggling company from John Ringling North and managed to revamp the financial viability of the circus. His son, Kenneth assumed control after his death.

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus:

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (Peru, Indiana) was named in part for Karl Hagenbach (1844-1913) a renowned German animal trainer who set a precedent for rewards-based animal training and provided an alternative to traditional fear-based training. Originally named Carl Hagenbeck Circus, it became Hagenbeck-Wallace on January 9, 1907 after many protracted legal complications including partnership disputes, failed mergers and defaulted loans. Karl Hagenbach sued against the use of his name but lost in court. Ben E. Wallace owned and operated the show until 1913. One of the great circus train wrecks involved the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus on June 22, 1918. The circus was a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus subsidiary from 1929 through 1935. In 1935, the show became Hagenbeck-Wallace and Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus. The circus closed in 1938. Clyde Beatty, renowned American animal trainer, was a Hagenbeck-Wallace alumni until he left in 1934 to start his own show with the Cole Bros. Circus.

Cole Bros. Circus:

The Cole Bros. Circus (originally of Rochester, Indiana) was founded by Martin J. Downs in 1906. Downs named the circus for W.W. "Chilly Billy" Cole, the first man to make $1 million in the circus business. In 1939, the Cole Bros. Circus, was the very last show to abandon the tradition of the circus street parade. On February 20, 1940, the winter quarters suffered one of the worst circus fires in history. In 1941, the company's permanent address was listed as Louisville, KY. Zack Terrell toured Cole Bros. Circus through 1948, at which time he sold it to Arthur M. Wirtz and associates. The circus closed on July 22, 1949.

Barnett Bros. Circus:

The Barnett Bros. Circus was founded in Canada in 1927. In 1929, the company moved its winter quarters to York, South Carolina. The Circus was operated for 16 years by Ray W. Rogers. The show was renamed the Wallace Bros. Circus for the year of 1937, and the years 1941-1944. Rogers died in 1943, but the cast and crew merged with Clyde Beatty Circus. In 1944, remaining equipment was sold to Clyde Beatty and Floyd King.

Clyde Beatty Circus:

The Clyde Beatty Circus was founded by Clyde Beatty (1903-1965), an animal trainer. He formed his own circus in 1945 after touring with several circuses including Hagenbeck-Wallace in his early career. Beatty toured his circus in conjunction with Russell Brothers Pan-Pacific Circus in 1946, then decided to open a show under his name only. In 1956, the circus was sold to the Acme Circus Corporation, and Beatty was hired as a star attraction. In 1957, the Acme Circus Corporation acquired the Cole Bros. name and the show became Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. Beatty remained the star of the show until his death in 1965.

Royal American Shows:

The Royal American Shows advertised itself as the "Most Beautiful Show on Earth" with the "World's Largest Midway." Carl J. Sedlmayr originally acquired this carnival in 1921 from the Siegrist - Silbon Shows in repayment for a financial loan. Sedlmayr was the sole owner of the carnival when he first started using the title Royal American in 1923. He named his carnival "Royal" for Canada and "American" for the United States. Two years later, he sold a partnership interest to the Velare Brothers, and this partnership continued until the early 1940s at which time the union was dissolved and the equipment divided. Sedlmayr was a partner with Sam Soloman in buying and operating the Rubin & Cherry Shows for two years. After War II, Sedlmayr launched the Royal American as his own show without partners. State fair and festival territorial routes included Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and western Canada. Sedlmayr died in 1965. His son and grandson, Carl J. Sedlmayr, Jr. and Carl J. Sedlmayr, III then handled the carnival, respectively. Royal American's last show was staged in Lubbock, Texas in October 1997.

A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show:

African-American A.G. Allen's name is associated with at least two other minstrel shows [A.G.]Allen's Minstrels (ca. 1900), and [A.G.]Allen's New Orleans Minstrels (ca. 1909). A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show stationery letterhead (ca. 1917) contains portraits of two men above a ribbon banner with names A.G. Allen and George W. Quine respectively. Neither is black. Permanent address is listed as: Care National Ptg. & Eng. Co., 1508 Tribune Bldg., Chicago, Illinois.

F.S. Wolcott's A Rabbit's Foot:

The Rabbit's Foot Company (also known as Rabbit Foot Minstrels) was a long running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show between the 1900's and 1940's. The company was founded, organized, originally owned and managed by Pat Chappelle, an African-American performer. The company had a brass band and traveled in its own private railroad car. After Chappelle's death in 1911, the company was purchased by white carnival owner, F.S. Wolcott. The company continued under his management on tour among southern states until the 1940's.

J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels:

Created in 1843, Virginia Minstrels is recognized as the nation's foremost minstrel troupe for that year. Although the original troupe dissolved the ensemble during the first tour abroad, their immense popularity contributed to the adoption of the "Virginia Minstrels" appellation into many subsequent troupes such as J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels.

Traveling Shows:

Green River and His Transcontinental Tributaries (n.d.): No historical information is available for this show other than the prices of admission, which were 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.

Silas Green (n.d.): Chas. Collier is listed as the owner. Performers listed were (comedians) Lilas & Silas, The Gaines Troupe, Charlie Morton, Jr., Cookie Howard the Girl


0.25 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials



Posters, route cards and book, annual, magazine, program of several circuses that performed in Mississippi.


Folder one contains an illustrated route book of Ringling Bros.' World's Greatest Shows for the 1894 season titled Beneath White Tents. The route book was a recorded account of the circus season, and was made available to the cast and crew as a commemorative token of that season, as well as to circus fans as a souvenir.

Folder two holds a circus annual for Ringling Bros.' World's Greatest Shows for the 1901 season. The annual includes photographs and a poem honoring the five Ringling brothers.

Folder three is comprised of a "road edition" program for The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth for the 1908 season, with performances in the Mississippi towns of McComb, Jackson, Yazoo City, and Clarksdale.

Folder four contains a Ringling Bros. / Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine and Program for 1947. Articles include highlights of circus advertising and a performance day time table.

Folder five holds 14 circus route cards:

The route cards were post card size circus itineraries distributed to cast and company members at predetermined intervals throughout the run of a season. The route cards were designed to be forwarded to families and friends in an effort to facilitate communications and mail delivery. The company did not release the entire season's route information for reasons of liability and fear of competition by other circuses.

1 Barnum & Bailey card dated: October 10 - November 5, 1910

3 Hagenbeck-Wallace cards dated: September 27 - October 9, 1926 [Card is addressed to C.C. Day, Purity Ice Cream Co., Atlantic, Iowa.] October 18 - October 30, 1926 [Card is addressed to C.C. Day, Purity Ice Cream Co., Atlantic, Iowa.] October 15 - November 5, 1934 [See back for notation of closing date.]

3 Barnett Bros. cards dated: September 17 - September 29, 1934 October 7 - October 20, 1934 October 29 - November 10, 1934

3 Cole Bros. cards dated: September 22 - October 12, 1941 September 29 - October 17, 1941 October 28 - November 13, 1943 [See back for handwritten note addressed "Dear Friend" and signed "Andy Kelly."]

1 Cyde Beatty card dated: September 6 - September 19, 1948 [See handwritten notes on back and front regarding "biz."]

3 Royal American cards dated: May 5 - November 5, 1951 May 10 - November 3, 1952 May 9 - November 1, 1953

Folder six contains a handbill, posters and stationery for minstrels and traveling shows (ca. 1900-1917) as follows:

Teams of advance men would travel weeks ahead of an approaching show, distribute cards and handbills personally, and post one sheet lithographs and posters, both large and small, on any appropriate, available space including fences, barns, and billboards within a 20 mile radius of a designated performance area.

2 posters: J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels

1 handbill: J.W. Johnson's Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels

1 poster: F.S. Wolcott's A Rabbit's Foot

1 poster: Silas Green

1 poster: Green River and His Ten Transcontinental Tributaries

1 sheet of stationery: A.G. Allen's Big Minstrel Show [See back for typed expense account of J.M. Beach, dated September 4 to September 16, 1917.]

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transferred from Mississippiana Vertical File, August 15, 1988.

Existence and Location of Copies

For Digitized Materials from this collection, see: External Documents link at bottom of page.

Related Materials

M550 Holland Circus Collection


Contents of collection

Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From Aba-Daba to the Zoppe-Zavatta Troupe. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.

Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. The African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and American Musicians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Sutton, Felix. The Big Show: A History of the Circus. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Circus, Minstrel and Traveling Show Collection
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Historical Manuscripts and Photographs Repository

118 College Drive - 5148
Hattiesburg MS 39406-0001