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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Clown; molded and polychromed paper mache; doubles as skittle holder and pull toy; 23 inches long sold for $27,500. Photo courtesy of Noel Barrett.
Jumbo and his tiny elephant companion Tom Thumb had just finished their circus performance in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, on Sept, 15 1885. P.T. Barnum’s 31 other elephants had already been loaded onto the train and were waiting to move on to the next town.

It was dark. Jumbo and Tom Thumb were heading toward their private car. As they crossed the freight yard the clang of an oncoming locomotive seemed to come out of nowhere. Approaching them at breakneck speed, the train tried to jam on its breaks.

Not in time. The engine smacked into Tom Thumb first breaking his left hind leg but tossing him aside to safety. Next the train plowed head-on into the colossal elephant. Jumbo was gone and the greatest show on earth had lost some of its greatness.

Jumbo was P.T. Barnum’s crowning achievement and the most famous non-human in the 19th century. Promoted as the largest pachyderm on earth, Jumbo won the hearts of circus-goers all over the world.

In his first 31-week season in America, Jumbo put over $1.5 million in Barnum’s pocket. In his 3 1/2 year stint with the circus an estimated 16 million adults and 4 million children paid to see him.

Barnum sought but never could really replace the legendary Jumbo or his box-office appeal. In many ways Jumbo epitomized the circus. Larger than life, dramatic, the behemoth elephant is now a permanent part of Americana. Jumbo lives on in movies, books, songs and posters. Just like the circus.

Smitten by the circus as a kid, some people collected everything that reminded them of their special day. For many collectors, it was the era before TV and the circus coming to town was the biggest event of the year. From the 1870s through the 1920s, it was a main source of popular entertainment.

One of Mark Twain’s secret wishes was to become a circus clown. At first people thought he was joking. Why on earth would someone who could write like Twain want to be a clown?

“I think it would be a very satisfying sensation when you come to a ripe old age, to feel and know that you made people happy—children especially,” Twain said. He wasn’t kidding.

The criticisms we hear today about the treatment of circus animals hadn’t come full circle. Back then anything related to the circus like handbills, tickets, window cards, and programs were mesmerizing.

In the past, finding circus memorabilia west of the Rockies wasn’t easy because circuses rarely traveled to this part of the country before the turn-of-the-century. The value of circus collectibles depends in large part on two things.

How old? How scarce?

Take Ringling Brothers as an example. The company printed thousands of posters prior to 1907. Many were destroyed in a fire in the printer’s warehouse. Finding Ringling posters that pre-date 1907 today is hard.

On Oct. 7-9, 2006, Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions in New Hope, Pa., held its autumn toy auction. Included in the sale were a number of circus-related collectibles. Here are some current values.

Circus collectibles

Elephant head; hand-painted various materials; used to decorate Danbury (CT) fairgrounds; 57 inches high; $1,100.

Elephants; 2; original trunk tips; ears; and tusks; made by Shoenhut; painted wood; 9 1/2 inches long; $1,320.

Poster; Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show; “La Roche et la Boule Mysterieuse;” 41 inches by 31 inches; $1,540.

Royal circus band wagon; Hubley; painted cast iron; four horse team, 6 band members and driver; 23 inches long; $1,980.

Clown; finely molded and polychromed paper mache clown; doubles as skittle holder and pull toy; on two wooden wheels; 23 inches long; $27,500.

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