Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 7



Shows thrive best on bluster and buncombe. Years of experience have taught me that the traveling show business handled by capitalists who have been trained in other lines of enterprise can never succeed. I have often been reproved by business men who were astounded at the lavish and apparently watseful expenditures of the circus for “show and blow,” and who have insisted that these expenses should be cut in half. It is true that such reckless expenditures in any ordinary commercial undertaking would be disastrous, but it is the life of a big show. When it is possible thoroughly to arouse the curiosity of the public, expense should be a secondary consideration.


I recall an incident, however, which goes to show that the most expensive attractions do not necessarily prove the greatest drawing cards. Among the rare animals which I had one season were some Memiponias, or tiny deerlets—"hell benders," as they were commonly called. One of the opposition shows was making a great feature of a pair of hippopotami, or river horses, from the Nile. I had made arrangements to receive, at stated intervals, regular numbers of "hell benders," and I would wire my agents ahead, "Another living hell bender arrived to-day." This he would advertise with great gusto, getting out special bills and keeping up the excitement.

One day, while one of my agents, who happened to be back with the show, was sitting in my office, a bill to the amount of six dollars was presented for "One dozen hell benders." Seeing this he inquired what it meant.

"Don't you see?" said I. "'One dozen hell benders, six dollars.'"

"Do you mean to say," my agent exclaimed, "that I have been advertising fifty-cent hell benders?"

"You have," I laughingly replied.

"Well," said he, "if that doesn't beat the deuce! These fifty-cent hell benders have knocked $10,000 worth of hippos higher than a kite!" It certainly was a fact that our fifty-cent articles had been so judiciously advertised as to create more excitement than the costly "hippos" of the opposition.

In the course of the same season I made a discovery which proved to be a valuable drawing card. I owned some young elephants which I had lent to a showman on the Bowery. On going to see them one day I noticed a man holding his finger in the mouth of one of the smaller ones. I placed my finger in the mouth of another and found that the creatures seemed to derive pleasure from the action of sucking. Immediately I sent out for an ordinary infant's nursing bottle. The young elephant drained the bottle as if to the manner born. It was passed from one to another of the infant class. Finally they fought in the most indescribably comical manner for possession of the bottle.


Then I fitted a large glass jar, holding a gallon, with rubber tubes, so that all could use it at the same time. Invariably they would empty this bottle before loosening their hold on the nipples. They had doubtless been taken from their mother when too young, or perhaps she had been killed at the time the young were captured. So effectively did they appeal to public interest and sentiment that by dint of skillful advertising the celebrated "sucking baby elephants" made quite a
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fortune in a single season. They would be led into the ring, where they would take their nourishment like human babies, their overgrown size making this infantile operation very comical and absurd. The sight captivated the heart of every woman who attended the show.

The eagerness of circus proprietors to procure animal monstrosities for exhibition purposes has called forth many laughable communications from persons who have curiosities of this kind to sell. I remember going one morning into the office and reading a telegram which came to Mr. Barnum. It was as follows:

"Baltimore, Md.

"To P. T. Barnum: I have a four-legged chicken. Come quick."

The circus of the present day is not complete without the side shows and the after concerts. For my own part I can honestly say that I never in my life heard a concert announcement made in my show without feeling like getting up and leaving in disgust; but all classes of show-goers must be pleased, and there is one class which demands the concert and another class that wants the side shows.


I am glad to know that the circus man who speaks of his patrons as "gillies," and who endeavors to obtain his wealth by fair or foul means, is becoming more and more rare. I recall an illiterate circus man of this description who employed every "privilege" known to the circus world. For example: when traveling by wagon the whole caravan would pass through a toll-gate, stating that the "boss" was behind and would pay the toll. The last vehicle to go through would contain this dignitary and his treasurer, who, when confronted with the long list of vehicles on which he ought to pay toll, would declare that the toll-keeper had been imposed upon, and that half of those vehicles belonged to a gang of gypsies having no connection whatever with the show. He would then cut the bill down according to the easy or hard nature of the custodian of the tollgate, and in this manner evade payment of what, in a whole season, would aggregate a large sum of money.

On one occasion, when about to exhibit in Albany, and knowing that his whole outfit would that day be attached for debt, he ordered the parade to start early, as he intended to give them a "long ride." The procession accordingly started on what has passed into circus history as the "silent parade," for, leaving the city in all the glory of spangle and tinsel, the showmen never rested until they had reached the State line, while the sheriffs, waiting at the tents in Albany for the parade to return, had the poor satisfaction of attaching the almost worn-out and quite worthless canvas.

I have often been asked what it costs to start a circus and menagerie. This is a most difficult question to answer, since it depends entirely upon the size and pretensions of the enterprise in question. Shows vary in size from cheap affairs, capable of being carried in three railroad cars, to the elaborate institutions which require two long special trains for their transportation. The expense of running a large show is enormous, although in advertising this expense is usually exaggerated. There are a great many traveling tented exhibitions which "bill," or advertise, like a circus, and in the eyes of the general public pass for circuses, but which, in reality, are variety exhibitions given under canvas.


In the eye of the law a circus must have feats of horsemanship in its program, and such shows have to pay a "circus" license, which in some States and cities is very high. If, however, the shows do not give any riding, their performance simply consisting of leaping, tumbling, and athletic feats, then a license may be taken out at a greatly reduced price; and this accounts for the almost numberless small shows which annually tour the country. Of the circus and menagerie show proper I do not think there are more than twenty in America; but of tented exhibitions, billed as "railroad shows," there are several hundred. The tented exhibitions employ from fifty to six hundred men each, and the capital invested in them runs from $5,000 to $250,000.

Many of the smaller shows are fitted out economically by purchasing from the larger ones paraphernalia that has been used a season or two. For example: the canvases used an entire season by a large show may be purchased cheaply, because it is essential to the attractiveness of a really great amusement institution to have each season a new, white "spread." The old canvas, if not sold to the smaller showmen, is disposed of to the paper manufacturers at about one and one-half cents the pound.

The same rule of enforced replenishment applies to wardrobe and general paraphernalia. In this way a beginner in the circus business may, by judicious investment in second-hand bargains, start out with a very fair outfit secured at a much smaller cost than if he were compelled to purchase everything new. And, in this connection, let me say that I know of no other business enterprise in which new material costs so much, and when sold at second-hand realizes so little. One of the largest shows ever organized in this country, and which was reputed to be worth more than half a million dollars, was inventoried on the death of one of the proprietors, with a view to selling the estate of the deceased, and, to the great surprise of the executors, was found to reach in value only about $200,000.

Twenty years ago a show with a daily expenditure of $250 was thought extravagant, while fifty years ago a circus whose receipts averaged sixty dollars a day was considered to be doing a good business. To-day there is one show the expenses of which are undoubtedly more than $3,500 a day, although it is surprising what wonderful displays are made by others at a cost of less than $1,000 a day. The reason for this is that, above a certain amount, the expenses depend largely upon the amount of advertising done. It is amusing, however, to note the manner in which all of them, big and little, claim to be the largest and most expensive attractions in the country. Many smaller showmen use the same billing matter as the largest ones, and scores of lines can be read in the circus advertisements of to-day that have done duty for many years.


It is almost impossible to give an intelligent idea of the cost of wild animals, since this depends entirely upon the operation of the law of supply and demand. The cost of cages varies, of course, according to size and decorations, and the same observation applies to the railroad cars. The most expensive of the latter are the highly ornamental cars used for advance advertising. These are comfortably, and even elaborately, fitted, and are provided with a huge paste boiler and other conveniences. They cost anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000. The flat and stock cars used by circuses are much more substantially constructed than the ordinary ones used in the railroad freight business, and are considerably larger, most of them being sixty feet in length and fitted with springs similar to those of passenger coaches. Cars of this description cost from $500 to $800 each; passenger coaches from $1,500 upward, according to the quality of interior, fittings and decorations.

Some circus proprietors also have their own private cars, fitted with every imaginable convenience and luxury, and such a car costs high in the thousands. The expense of the wardrobe depends, of course, on the amount used and its quality, and whether the costumes are intended for a spectacular show or for an ordinary circus. The wardrobe and papier mâché chariots used in the production of our "Congress of Nations" cost Mr. Barnum and myself more than $40,000, and I am told that Mr. Bailey expended a like amount on his "Columbian" display.

The price of the canvas has been wonderfully reduced within the last few years. We paid $10,000 for our first hippodrome tent alone, and this did not include dressing-room tents, horse tents and camp tents. Afterward, however, we had a larger one made for very much less money. The small circuses that hover around Chicago and the larger cities of the West in summer usually use a tent about eighty feet across, with two thirty-foot middle pieces. This, equipped with poles, seats and lights, costs about $800. These tents are made of light material. The larger canvases have to be made of stouter stuff, and a tent suitable for hippodrome or spectacular shows, which must be about 225 feet in width and 425 or 450 feet in length, would cost about $7,000.


As an evidence of how circuses have increased in size, I will say that the seventy or eighty quarter poles which hold up the main tent of the Barnum & Bailey shows are each larger than the main pole used years ago. The present system of lighting, which, by the way, I was the first to use, is the patent of an Englishman, improved by an American named Gale. It first took the place of kerosene lights, so far as circus illumination is concerned, in 1870. In experimenting with these lights, when I first introduced them, I several times met with accidents which threatened to terminate my career. Once I purchased an electric light plant with the intention of doing away with all gasoline illumination, but was compelled to abandon the attempt after expending $8,000 for a portable electric plant.

The item of tent stakes is quite a formidable one. Fitted with iron rings, they cost about fifty cents each, and hundreds of them are required by every circus. Harnesses require an outlay of from ten to twenty-five dollars each, according to decoration and material.

The draught horses used by circuses vary in price, some of them being purchased cheap from horse markets; but I have always found that the best I could get were the most economical. Those bought by me averaged $200 each; the usual circus horse, however, costs much less, and so long as it does its work all right the main purpose is answered, for, in passing through the streets, its faults do not attract the attention of the ordinary observer, but only that of the typical horseman. Ring horses, whether for a "pad" or a "bare-back" act, must have a regular gait, as without it the rider is liable to be thrown. They are frequently and generally owned by the performers themselves, and I have known a crack rider to pay as high as $2,000 for one whose gait exactly suited him. The performing "trakene" stallions brought from Germany by Mr. Barnum cost $10,000, and my first troupe of educated horses, ten in number, were purchased at the same figure. These, however, were unquestionably the best and most valuable ever seen in a circus.


Though it would be comparatively easy to start a circus and menagerie equipped almost entirely with second-hand paraphernalia, the reader will see from the following figures that the cost of starting a new first-class circus and menagerie is another proposition. Here are a few official figures on the cost of a first-class circus and menagerie which have never before been made public. They are taken from my private record, or invoice book:

20 Cages at $350, $7,000.00
2 Band wagons at $1,500 each, 3,000.00
3 Chariots at $3,000 each, 9,000.00
1 Wardrobe wagon, 800.00
1 Ticket wagon, 400.00
The above for the parade.
Animals to fill these cages will average about:
2 Lions, 2,000.00
2 Royal Tigers, 2,000.00
2 Leopards, 400.00
1 Yak, 150.00
1 Horned Horse, 500.00
2 Camels, 300.00
2 Elephants, 3,000.00

(As small elephants have been delivered here for $1,000 each, this is probably a fair average.)

1 Hippopotamus 5,000.00
1 Rhinoceros, 5,000.00
1 Cages of monkeys 1,000,00
1 Kangaroo 200.00
1 Cassowary, 200.00
1 Ostrich 500.00
1 Giraffe, 1,500.00
Other small animals including hyenas,
bears, ichneumon, birds, etc
12 Baggage wagons at $200, 2,400.00
4 Roman chariots, 1,000.00
125 Horses at $125 each 15,625.00
This price is above the average.
125 Harnesses at $15, 1,875.00
2 Advertising cars, 5,000.00
Wardrobe, 3,000.00
2 Sleepers, 5,000.00
10 Flat cars at $400, 4,000.00
6 Horse cars at $400 2,400.00
Elephant car, 500.00
Tents, 4,000.00

This could be reduced by eliminating the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffe and other very expensive animals, but to this must be added considerable money for stakes, shovels, picks, stake pullers, extra ropes, tickets, blank contracts and all necessary printing, which would bring the cost of the usual "million dollar" circus and menagerie up to about $86,000.

On all this property there is not one dollar of insurance. Once, when on the road, a live stock insurance company came to me to insure our horses, but at the rate at which they wanted to insure them I soon convinced them that we could not make any money.

I might add that a circus and menagerie at the figures I have given would be far better and larger than the average "million dollar show" now on the road, there being certainly not more than three aggregations that cost more than the amount I have given. No man should attempt the show business who has not a fortune, and also plenty of that other kind of capital quite as essential to his success—long experience on the road.