The Circus Comes to Town

The Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, and The New Yorker marked the occasion with a profile of the surviving Ringlings, John and Charles. Writer Helena Huntington Smith noted that the brothers used a lowbrow profession to become multimillionaires, real estate kings (“They own “most of the west coast of Florida”) and even occasional patrons of the arts.

Speaking of lowbrow, circus freaks remained a big attraction in 1920s New York. Here is an image of the Ringling Brothers “Congress of Freaks” lineup from two years earlier, in 1924:

Congress of Freaks 1924
Photograph by Edward Kelty, who took photos of the “Congress of Freaks” every year from 1924 to the mid 1930s.

The 1926 show at Madison Square Garden also featured elephants “dancing” the Charleston. One wonders how much these poor beasts were tortured:

7341-1 Dansende olifant 1926
(Vintage Everyday)

And from the “Remember it’s 1926 Department,” we have this New Yorker obituary for famed Ringling circus freak Zip the Pinhead. Note that Zip was “owned” by a Captain O.K. White:

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Zip’s real name was William Henry Johnson. Thought to have been born with microcephaly (those with the condition were commonly called “pinheads), he might have merely possessed an oddly shaped head.

Zip_the_pinhead
Zip the pinhead (Wikipedia)

Audiences were often told that he was a wild man, or a missing link, and although it was assumed he was mentally deficient (the New Yorker article above suggested he had the mentality of a two-year-old child), Johnson’s sister said he could “converse like the average person, and with fair reasoning power.” She claimed his last words (he died at age 83) were, “Well, we fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

The New Yorker editors continued to marvel at the heights of new buildings, the latest being the Ritz Tower, which was to be the tallest residential building in the city:

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Here’s a postcard image of the Ritz Tower from the late 1920s. Note the airplane at left, added to emphasize the building’s height:

new-york-ritz-tower-granger

At 41 stories and 541 feet, the Ritz was city’s tallest residential tower at the time. The tallest residential tower in NYC today is 432 Park Avenue. The 96-story tower is just shy of 1,400 feet:

432PA_NW-View_copyright-dbox-for-CIM-Group-Macklowe-Properties-1024x682
(Forbes)

Even taller residential towers are in the works.

Now, to end on a lighter note, a Whoops Sisters cartoon by Peter Arno–this is the first in which their trademark “Whoops” is uttered. Personally, I don’t find Arno’s Whoops Sisters all that funny. I guess you had to be there…

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and this “generation gap” observation by Helen Hokinson:

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Next Time: Batter Up

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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