Step Right Up, Folks! — When Circus Promoters and Show-Folk Shopped the Pages of “The Billboard”

by Paula Bosses

The entertainment magazine we know now as Billboard began life in 1894 as an advertising trade publication focusing on outdoor billboards and posters. By the turn of the century it had broadened its scope to the entertainment industry, including vaudeville, circuses, carnivals, and outdoor fairs. The ads from this period of “The Billboard,” as it was called then, are great. Here are a few of my favorites, found browsing the pages of editions from 1904 and 1905. (Some images are larger when clicked.)


Whether you trod the boards or the sawdust, The Billboard was essential reading for keeping up with news and employment opportunities, and it was THE source for theatrical equipment and the season’s hottest novelties.

Let’s say you needed a new elephant. (Monkeys a bargain at $70/dozen.)



Snakes “broke to handle” (“the kind that live”).



If you were a billposter, paste was probably a very important part of your perpetually sticky life. “Will not sour.”



The Murray Co. sold it all: circus canvases, poles, stakes, seats, flags, and SIDE SHOW PAINTINGS!



The Buckeye Antiseptic Circus Toilet: “nestable, portable, practical, fly proof, odorless…. Solves a problem.” This is really interesting — and the kind of thing one rarely considers. Click the ad to read the very informative text.



“Wanted–freaks and platform novelties of all kinds–Giants, Fat Women, Midgets, Animal Acts, Illusions, Glass Blowers, etc.” (Personally, I’d like to see all of these acts onstage at the same time — doing whatever it was they did.)



If one of your “glass blowers” has fallen ill (or worse), The Billboard was there to save the day with its emergency want-ads. The term “at liberty” shows up a lot in the back pages of show business trades from this period — it was a genteel way of saying “unemployed.”



Here’s an eye-catching ad: Lionel Legare and his Mammoth Spiral Tower — the “Largest and grandest sensational attraction on earth.” I have to admit, I’d be curious to see Mr. Legare, “the fearless, famous, and original equilibrist” in action, but the star of the show seems to be that fantastic tower, which, at night, was festooned with electric lights and had fireworks exploding above it. (See photos of Lionel at work, with a description of just what it was he did, here.)



You can’t have a carnival or a circus without cotton candy. The Fairy Floss Candy Machine is “easy to operate,” and it reliably “spins sugar into fleecy, feathery candy, any color or flavor.” But be warned, it’s patented (it seems only fitting that one of the inventors of the Fairy Floss machine was a not-afraid-to-be-litigious dentist) — “infringements will be prosecuted.” (See a larger image of the photo of that steely-eye lassie proffering her fluffy wares here.)



A possible infringer might have been the Cotton Floss Candy Machine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama. “It will pay for itself in one hour.”



An “artificial peach” was a best-seller. People apparently loved it. For some reason.



What self-respecting circus attendee is going to leave without acquiring a toy whip and/or a walking cane?



And this ad? Nothing but lingo: “Latest in marked cards, inks, percentage dice, spindles, strikers, drop cases, and games of all kinds. Finest hold-out made.” I don’t know what a lot of that jargon means, but the Wikipedia entry for “holdout (gambling)” is here. (Never trust a man who carries his own dice.)



“A park without an arcade is like a forest without game.” The impressive array of coin-operated machines seen here incluedes the Illustrated Song Machine, the Improved Phonograph, the Auto Stereoscope, the Hat Blower, Cupid’s Postoffice (a later manufacturer “borrowed” almost everything about this machine, seen in action here), and the Improved Bag Puncher. (More on the Mills Novelty Co., an important player in the arcade and vending machine industry, here. And a better image of a couple of the machines can be seen in a photo printed in The Street Railway Review, May 15, 1905, here.)



I’d never heard of coin-operated “banjo machines,” but they’ve been around since at least 1897 (read how they worked, in an Aug. 21, 1898 article from The Pittsburgh Post, here). This Electric Banjo machine (from the Western Automatic Banjo Company of Chicago) was one of many such machines on the market (there’s a whole page on these things, here). “You cannot invest your money to better advantage.” (See one of these machines in action here.)



I wonder if funhouse mirrors started out as an accident? Like penicillin.



Drunk? Need to not be drunk? A swig of “Sober-Up” (“the greatest discovery of the age”) (later to be eclipsed by the aforementioned penicillin…) will snap you right back to sobriety.



Now I know that confetti is sold by the pound. “Some good confetti, boys.”



“Mlle. Zaccho, who is known on the vaudeville stage as the world’s greatest strong woman, is, in conjunction with Samson, appearing in a wonderful act […] in which she lifts an upright piano and player, a combined weight of 1,100 pounds, with her teeth. Mlle. Zaccho has met with great success in the west. She is now coming east and will appear on the leading vaudeville circuits.” It might be worth your time to read about Mlle. Zaccho’s act — here, in a review from The Boston Globe (July 28, 1896).




Sources & Notes

Old issues of Billboard are available on the Internet Archive — browse through a few editions from Oct., 1905, for instance, here.

Read about the history of Billboard magazine here.


Copyright © 2018 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.


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