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Featured Collection: George Pennell Collection of Circus Ephemera, Photographs, and Papers

This Featured Collection was written by Paige Horton, a student assistant in Special Collections and Archives.

The George Pennell Collection of circus ephemera, photographs, and other materials is an intriguing collection made of a compilation of legal documents, personal letters, pictures, and memorabilia from his time working as an attorney with various circus and carnival companies. Special Collections was gifted the collection from George Pennell’s son, Timothy Pennell, in late 2007.

George Pennell graduated with a degree in law from Wake Forest College and later was a member of the Board of Trustees. His son Timothy Pennell followed in his father’s footsteps. At Wake Forest , Timothy graduated with a B.S. 1955 and a M.D. in 1960. After graduation he went on to work as a surgeon at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine.

George Pennell’s life as an attorney working in the amusement industry had him juggling multiple vocations. Primarily, he was the attorney for owners and their shows. However, Pennell was also hired by circus and carnival companies to “procure some acts which they desire to contract and pay a flat rate.” He organized big fairs with multiple circus companies: “I have had 2 phone calls from two of the Big Shows tentatively wanting Asheville for the coming fall…I am reorganizing this Fair with a new corporate setup,” (Nov. 28, 1950). He also had the “Power of Attorney for rental purposes on the Lot” (Feb. 14, 1951) which allowed the circus to rent land out for the duration of their performances from local owners.

It was obvious to everyone that Pennell loved his job. He admits this to a friend in a personal letter joking, “if I didn’t enjoy being around show people I certainly would never accept employment.” It is also evident that the people Pennell worked for appreciated him just as much. In 1965 Pennell received a certificate of appreciation from Jack Smith (managing director) and Alex Irwin (chairman of the board) of Robbins Bros Circus for “your contribution and service in the furtherance of the outdoor circus industry.”

While the collection is primarily about Pennell’s life as an attorney, it also sheds light on the amusement industry in the mid 20th century. The collection contains a multitude of pictures and circus books giving a well-rounded view of the industry. And, as can be expected with a collection about the circus, there are several entertaining photos of the so-called “assistant freaks,” and a letter explaining the “circus slang.”

The collection also gives an inside look at some of the big name circus’ today, namely Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus. At the time Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey’s show, The Greatest Show on Earth, may or may not have been the greatest show in the world but it was most definitely the largest. According to the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus website, The Greatest Show on Earth consisted of “100 double-length railroad cars and 1,200 employees…[it] was arguably the largest traveling amusement enterprise up to that time.”

Pennell did work with the company for well over a decade. The collection sheds insight into Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus route book, management, and legal contracts. The documents show both the overwhelming success of their show The Greatest Show on Earth and the decline. Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey gave their last tented performance on July 16th, 1956. The collection has a copy of the newspaper clipping the details the ending. In it John Ringling North, head of the circus, says “the tented circus as it now exists is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.” The shut-down was prompted by the audience’s changing tastes but also by “labor troubles, bad weather, and rising costs.”

The George Pennell Collection is a well-rounded collection that has great research potential for Wake Forest students, staff, and faculty. To access the collection students can view the finding aid to get a brief overview or make an appointment with Special Collection to view the collection.

4 Comments on ’Featured Collection: George Pennell Collection of Circus Ephemera, Photographs, and Papers‘

  1. Craig Fansler

    This is a wonderful synopsis of this collection. Congratulation Paige and Rebecca for a great job. I knew Tim Pennell and remember going to his home to pick up this collection years ago. Great work!

  2. Susan

    I continue to be surprised and delighted by the scope of our special collections! This is wonderful stuff! Thanks for writing about it Paige!

  3. Lynn Sutton

    Is this where we got the image for our holiday card of several years ago? It was wonderful!

  4. Palmer

    This looks great! Will definitely have to come in and take a look!