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Cool Things - Circus Posters

Circus poster  from Holton, Kansas.Childhood fascinations sometimes become retirement hobbies. For Manuel Phelps, his love for the circus grew into a desire to collect "Big Top" posters.

These posters are only a small sample of the circus items acquired by collector Manuel Phelps. They provide interesting visual insight into circuses which have journeyed through Kansas.

Twelve-year-old Manuel Phelps moved to Kansas in the 1930s, residing briefly in Topeka, Kansas City, and Osawatomie. In Topeka, Manuel lived near railroad tracks and would often see circus trains in route. Though Manuel was never able to attend the circus as a child, he and his brother often organized local pets to simulate the circus for the neighborhood.

Wellington circus poster.After retirement from a telecommunications company in the late 1970s, Manuel rediscovered his fascination for the circus. Along with his wife Dorothea, Manuel began traveling throughout the Midwest to attend the circus. After subscribing to several circus magazines, he began building a small resource library in his basement. Assembling small circus models also became part of his passion. Manuel always enjoyed the artwork displayed on circus posters and would often purchase or request one from each circus he attended. 

Local businesses purchased these posters from the circus in advance and posted them around the community as advertisement. Though serving the basic function of providing location and time, the posters also relayed a sense of excitement and amazement. These were the emotions that Manuel Phelps hoped to preserve while building his collection.

Topeka circus poster.The concept of the circus was first developed in England in 1768 to showcase trick riding within a circular ring. Clowns, acrobats, and jugglers were later added as attendance grew. All these elements were presented in a temporary wooden structure that came to be known as the circus. 

The circus first appeared in the U.S. in 1793, but its popularity did not peak until the late 1800s with large organizations such as Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers. These larger acts utilized railroads and canvas tents to quickly move from city to city, often stopping in small rural communities along the way. Exotic animals such a lions, giraffes, and elephants were not seen inside the ring until the 1880s.

Entry: Cool Things - Circus Posters

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2002

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.