Tag Archives: Circus History

Advertising the Big Top: 1870s Circus Ads from the Staunton Spectator

SS Sept 16, 1873 (Lent)It’s September 16, 1873 in the sleepy town of Staunton, Virginia. You can only imagine a reader’s excitement at turning to page three of the Staunton Spectator to discover an ad for Lewis Lent’s New York Circus with its illustrations and long list of spectacular attractions: For a mere seventy-five cent admission (fifty cents for children under ten), one could see grand balloon ascension, wild beasts, breathing sea monsters, ornately plumed birds, flesh eating reptiles and 5000 museum marvels!

Born in upstate New York in 1813, Lewis Lent began his circus career in 1834. Soon after, he became a partner in the Brown & Lent Circus, which moved from town to town via riverboat. Over the years, Lent joined various circus troupes, but his New York Circus, which ran from 1873 to 1874, advertised here in the Staunton Spectator, was the last show he owned and operated before retiring.Staunton Spectator 16 Sept 1873 (2)SS 16 Sept 1873SS 16 Sept 1873 (2)SS 16 Sept. 1873Though the heyday of the traveling circus in the US might have been a bit later, the circus advertisements in newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s are evidence of its growing popularity and allure. The impetus for such elaborate newspaper advertising was the fierce competition between traveling shows. With beautiful illustrations of zebras, elephants, hippos, giraffes and tigers, acrobats standing on horse back, uniformed musicians, dancing dogs and trapeze artists, circus advertisements were an enticing and powerful promotional tool.

In the October 12, 1877 issue of the Staunton Spectator on page three, next to want ads and announcements, there is a full two column ad for John O’Brien’s circus, “The Largest Show ever in Virginia!” The ad for O’Brien’s circus promised mechanical marvels, three full military bands, palace opera chairs, 53 dens of wild beasts and six (yes, six!) stupendous shows rolled into one.SS O'Brien's circusJohn O‘Brien, born in 1836, became … read more »

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