Post contributed by Robin Klaus, Graduate Intern, Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History.
During the golden age of circuses in America, a circus performer-turned-advertiser named Bert Cole offered a unique marketing opportunity: banner advertisements draped across the sides of circus elephants. Cole capitalized on the massive spectatorship of the circus, as well as the elephant’s identity as a symbol of the spectacle, to transform elephants into walking billboards promoting retailers, services, and consumer goods of all kinds. The Rubenstein Library’s Bert Cole Collection archives this circus side hustle—a fascinating episode in the history of American advertising that provides a glimpse into the auto industry boom of the early twentieth century.
Background: The Turn-of-the-Century Circus
The traveling circus was a ubiquitous cultural presence in the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century. Upcoming shows advertised months in advance with eye-catching posters plastered on every surface in town—brightly colored images of wild animals and scantily clad performers advertised the eroticism, exoticism, and danger to come. “Circus Day” became an unofficial holiday as stores closed, schools cancelled, factories shut down, and enormous crowds gathered to watch the free parade and attend the show.
The turn-of-the-century circus owed its success to a unique combination of social and economic factors. The construction of a transnational railroad network after the Civil War accompanied the Western expansion of the nation (ten new states were admitted to the Union from 1889-1912). Circuses relied on these routes to transport their shows to small towns and urban centers, also taking advantage of new markets across the growing nation. Meanwhile, industrialization brought advances that transformed the economic landscape—incomes increased, costs of living decreased, and the number of hours in a standard workweek was its lowest in decades. Newfound time and discretionary income led to the rise of national leisure culture, also accompanied by an explosion of consumer goods, services, and mass media advertisements for them.
With the film industry still in its infancy (the “golden age of Hollywood” was during the 1930s and 40s), circuses became the preeminent form of mass entertainment—and the circus elephant played an essential role. The actual production of the circus relied on labor that elephants performed; only elephants had the strength to raise the masts of the largest circus tents, for example, or dislodge heavy circus wagons when they became stuck in mud. The elephant was also visually significant as a symbol of the American circus; everyone agreed that a show could not be a circus without an elephant. Consequently, the circus elephant was a mainstay in the cultural imagination of early-twentieth-century America.
Collection Spotlight: Elephant Advertising and the American Auto Industry
Photographs from the Bert Cole collection document how Cole leveraged the popularity of the circus and the elephant as a potent cultural symbol to develop a hallmark advertising strategy. Little is known about Cole, but circus route books (much like theater playbills) reveal that he was a drum corps member for the Walter L. Mains Circus in the 1890s. The collection’s earliest photograph dates from this era (1897), likely when Cole began experimenting with elephant advertisements while still primarily a circus performer. Banner ads from this early period tend to feature specific sales promotions (“Worsted Suits from $6.87 to $12”) or directly associate the client with the elephant icon (“Webster’s Market Owns This Elephant Today”). As time went on, the advertisements began to include more traditional signage with product slogans and recognizable branding.
By the early 1920s, Bert Cole had an official advertising job with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Collection photographs show that Cole started to promote his elephant billboards as an actual system of advertising around this time. “Cole System N.Y.” appears at the bottom of a banner advertisement from 1921, becoming just “Cole System” by 1923.
The collection documents a range of consumer goods and services advertised by the Cole System, including flour brands, furnaces, banks, and retail stores. Cole even dabbled in political advertising, as seen in a Republican primary campaign ad for George H. Milemore for County Judge—a rider, presumably the candidate himself, sits atop an elephant with a banner declaring that Milemore, “will win by a mile or more.”
Interestingly, the most popular category of elephant advertisements in the collection are those for cars, tires, and auto shops.
In fact, nearly half of the brands and products in the collection relate in some way to the American automobile industry—frequently appearing as partnerships between local dealerships and national brands. Car companies appearing in the collection include Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Hupmobile, Oldsmobile, Star, Studebaker, and Willys-Knight.
Unlike other products advertised on elephants, collection photographs show that new car models were often staged alongside their elephant ads on circus grounds, showcasing the industry’s latest designs to a massive audience.
The collection also includes several letters from satisfied clients—all motor company executives expressing their enthusiasm for the incredible reach of Cole’s elephant advertising. One wrote, “The idea is original and novel and I have never heard of any method of making a direct appeal to such a large number of people as is possible for $112.00 with your show.”
An identifiable market trend within an advertising platform as niche as circus elephants speaks to the dominance of the American automobile industry at this historical moment. Annual automobile sales in the United States rose from 130,000 vehicles in 1909 to over 2 million in 1920. As industry production and advertising shifted their focus from initial demand to replacement demand, novelty became an important selling factor; car companies concentrated on annual model changes and product innovations to compete with the emerging used car market—evidence of which can be seen throughout the Bert Cole collection.
For more insights into the unique intersection of circus mania, advertising history, and the American automobile industry in the early twentieth century, see the collection at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library.
Cole, George S. Route Book of Walter L. Main’s All New Monster Railroad Shows: Circus, Menagerie, and Real Roman Hippodrome. Hackettstown, NJ: Gazette Steam Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1891. https://digital.library.illinoisstate.edu/digital/collection/p15990coll5/id/470
Dassbach, Carl H. A. “The Social Organization of Production, Competitive Advantage and Foreign Investment: American Automobile Companies in the 1920s and Japanese Automobile Companies in the 1980s.” Review of International Political Economy (Autumn 1994) 1, no. 3: 489-517.
Davis, Janet. Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus: Official Route Season 1921. West Baden, IN: Hagenbeck-Wallace Show Company, 1921. https://digital.library.illinoisstate.edu/digital/collection/p15990coll5/id/7801
Langlois, Richard N. and Paul L. Robertson. “Explaining Vertical Integration: Lessons from the American Automobile Industry.” The Journal of Economic History (June 1989) 49, no. 2: 361-375.
Nance, Susan. Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.