Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Long May They Wave
ANSWER: Americans have been in love with the circus for over 200 years. And for more than half that time have been buying souvenirs to remind them of that brief moment of fantasy when the circus came to town.
Circus pennants have been sold at the circus for nearly 100 years. They promoted both the circus selling them and some of the individual acts and stars. Just about all the famous circus acts have had their names blazoned across a pennant at one time or other. Hopalong Cassidy, who made his name on television in the 1950s, toured with the Cole Brothers Circus. A pennant with his likeness is worth a cool $150 today. The navy blue felt pennant with a white illustration of Hoppy on his horse, Topper, features his name in rope script along with the Cole Brothers Circus name.
Roy Rogers had his own show, the Roy Rogers Thrill Circus, in the late 1940s. He’s pictured on a 28-inch pennant, today valued at about $110, riding a bucking bronco.
The history of flying a pennant dates back to the days of chivalry. As time went on, they became associated with the naval war ships and eventually sports teams. Essentially, a pennant in the general sense is an elongated triangular commemorative flag. Traditionally, pennant manufacturers made them of felt and fashioned them in the official colors of a particular team. They usually displayed the team’s mascot symbol, as well as the team name on the pennants. Workers stitched or silk-screened the images onto the pennants in contrasting colors. As sports pennants became popular, other organizations like circuses began selling them as souvenirs.
But for circuses, the pennant was all about promotion. P.T. Barnum was the undisputed master of that. In 1872, he decided to increase the size of his show. By adding a second ring in a larger tent, he could double his capacity. He scoured the world for unusual acts to present to make his circus better than all the others. Eventually, Barnum added a center ring, and began promoting the acts appearing in it. He used pennants and other souvenirs to promote these acts so people would come back year after year to see his show.
In the early 20th century, the five Ringling Brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin entered the circus arena and everything changed. In the proud tradition of overstatement, they superseded even P.T. Barnum and soon their shows became the Greatest Show on Earth. It alone is responsible for many of the circus collectible items on the market today.
And while Ringling Brothers souvenirs are collectible, most collectors seek out the more obscure little shows that traveled the back roads of middle America. To them, these represent the real world of the circus.
Read about the history of the American circus poster.