Tiny art celebrates big top shows

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Margaret Plevak | May 9, 2014

DELAVAN—Right now there's a colorful piece of circus history available for the price of a stamp.

The United States Postal Service issued a sheet of stamps May 5 commemorating vintage circus posters, and while they may be available at post offices everywhere, it seems particularly appropriate to pick them up at the Delavan Post Office, 335 E. Walworth Ave.

After all, it was circus owners from Delavan—Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup—who formed a partnership with showman Phineas Taylor Barnum in 1875. And before it evolved into the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it was known in those days as “P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome,” according to Ringling Brothers circus history.

Circus owners were so drawn to the area's plentiful lakes and pastures for their performing animals that Delavan became the winter quarters for more than 26 circuses from 1847 to 1894.

While the circus stamps have only been on sale a few days, Delavan Postmaster Alice Henson said customers who come are drawn to the large poster depicting them, framed by what looks like an old-fashioned circus tent.

“Sales of the stamps have been very popular, and some individuals and even businesses have been coming back to buy more,” Henson said.

She plans on selling them until her supplies run out, then ordering more from the district center post office.

The pane, or sheet, of 16 Forever stamps is $7.84. Customers can also order them online at usps.com or by calling 1-800-STAMP-24.

The artwork is colorful and iconic, with snarling tigers, high-wire ballerinas, costumed elephants and white-faced clowns.

Henson said her favorite designs are the acrobat who balances upside down on steps, and the Ringling Brothers elephant, whose trunk points to the fact that five herds of elephants will be performing in five circus rings at once during the show.
According to the USA Philatelic, the USPS quarterly stamp catalog, the images used were chosen from more than 5,000 historic posters in the Tibbals Collection at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla.

The posters were vital to circus owners because they often advertised a one-day-only event, so their bright colors were designed to attract attention.

“(Commercial printers) produced thousands of posters that were plastered onto walls and fences throughout a town, announcing the circus's arrival,” wrote Steven High, executive director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, in the USA Philatelic. “Some of these advertisements would cover an entire barn wall or roof, and all proclaimed in large and bold text the spectacular features that awaited the circus patron.”

The stamps aren't the first to commemorate the circus. A 5-cent stamp depicting a multi-colored clown face debuted on May 2, 1966. It proved to be so popular 131,270,000 stamps were  issued, and a special cancellation of the stamp was offered in Delavan. 

Henson said she may still hold a special local promotion of the circus stamps this summer, when the Delavan Post Office building celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Meanwhile, she'll sell the stamps and answer questions from customers, like “Where is that circus park in Delavan?” (It's Tower Park, located on Walworth Avenue.)

“When you live here, you sometimes take that history for granted,” she said. “But it's a wonderful connection.”

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