Your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from thrift stores, estate sales, and flea markets.
A stack of souvenir circus programs
Date: 1970s and ’80s
Publisher: Mostly Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey
Discovered at: Vintage Thrift Shop, 286 Third Avenue
The Cover Promises: “The Living Unicorn” … and also to teach children about disappointment.
Make a wish upon the unicorn. Believe with all your heart that impossible dreams can happen. Close your eyes and count to three …. you’ll see your wish come true!
Created by fear-eating hobos as the most efficient way to harvest the tears of children, the traveling circus has for over 150 years bilked, upset, and creeped out Americans, all while performing one vital educational service: teaching us how to identify the most miserable of animals.
Since the days of P.T. Barnum, the circus has been a place of magic and imagination, which is a nice way of saying “ridiculous lies.” Just as Barnum himself charged suckers in 1835 to see a blind old woman he insisted was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington, the circus that still bears his name dared in 1985 to indulge in some old-fashioned hucksterism of its own. That’s the year that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus claimed it had a unicorn.
Of course, a quick peek at the 1985 circus program suggests this all may have been a hoax:
That’s just a sex-toy goat!
Here’s that unicorn on a pedestal, waving its great fleshy and pink protuberance for a family audience.
Wait, is that why unicorns have that special relationship with virgins?
And here it is at prom:
The recipe for a unicorn: One goat, one comically oversized sex toy, one wad of petticoats and Santa beard, and one trip to that Emerald City spa that left the Cowardly Lion looking so grand.
That unicorn is far from the strangest thing in this stack of old circus programs I recently scored for $1 apiece. For example, from a late ’70s edition of the Ringling Bros. show, here are two words you don’t expect to see together:
Sometimes there’s something sneering about the teases the circus of yesteryear relied on to promote their attractions:
Michu wasn’t just small. He also boasted an almost supernatural capacity for taking Ringling’s shit.
In our somewhat enlightened age, we’re often worried about the treatment of performing animals. Here is proof that the circus, too, has long shared this concern:
See? As early as the late ’70s, the Ringling Bros. were trying to prep polar bears for the horrors of climate change.
Here’s a terrifying thought: What if a clown became death and had access to a time machine?
Speaking of terror, here’s a bit of advice:
If you’re nearly nude and working with a toothsome wild animal, do not confuse that animal by wearing a loincloth made out of its skin.
Here’s another made-up circus animal, one actually identified by the circus management as a fake:
The caption calls this a “gyrating” “gorilla parody.” Those are real words a real person once thought made sense.
Finally, this next caption contains an untruth:
NOBODY ENJOYS CHIMP MUSIC, YOU LYING STUPID CIRCUS
Here’s something rare: A bouquet that no one could ever want.
The splashy Ringling Bros. extravaganzas may look dated and ridiculous to us today, but they certainly boasted their impressive numbers, spectacular acrobats, and top-flight production values. Contrast the images above with those managed by their competitor Emmett Kelly, the sad clown whose sad circuses just couldn’t compete.
Here’s one of Kelly’s pamphlets:
Here are Kelly’s most impressive acts, apparently presented by whoever used to put together the news bulletins at my elementary school:
And this must qualify as one of the most depressing dot-to-dots the world has ever known:
Finally, here’s the coloring-book page sure to inspire children to ask, “Mommy? What color is sadness?”
Next time you’re in a creative writing class, why not bring that image in as a story prompt? “‘Color me in!’ the weeping clown shouted to the bear as their slow-dance ended.”
Kelly’s circus is so depressing that it could make you actually long for some of that Barnum & Bailey big-top razzle-dazzle. So, let’s close out with one more look at this glorious beast:
Note: Historians believe that the salutation “May all your days be circus days” was, at one time, the cruelest of all Eastern European curses.
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