Lot Circus and Carnival Ephemera
[circus ephemera] Kunkely, M. E. [Max]; YMCA Niagara Falls. Lot Circus and Carnival Ephemera: Promotional Blueprints and Drawings for "World's Fair and Society Circus" proposed fairgrounds [together with] Official Program, County Fair and Circus: Mammoth Combined Array of the Wonders of the World [and] two 8x10 photographs of young mens' acrobatics and theater troupe. New York: ca. 1910. Group of circus-related ephemera ca. 1910 dappled with intrigue: Prospectus for Max Kunkely’s “World’s Fair and Society Circus” [together with] Official Program for Y.M.C.A. Niagara County Fair [and] two 8x10 photographs of amateur performers.
(1) Official Program County Fair and Circus “Mammoth Combined Array of the Wonders of the World” Young Men’s Christian Association, Niagara Falls, NY. No year stated, but 1910 based on the days of the week (advertised for Thursday and Friday, April 14 and 15) and the centerfold ad for the new Kodak Brownie Camera 2A. 11.5 x 8.75 inches, (8)p. Creases from being folded into sixths, paper particularly fragile and partly worn through at the intersection of the folds. With an aggressively alliterative ad for Shredded Wheat on the rear cover–then a major Niagara Falls export.
Per the program, the Circus had 11 events ranging from polka dance, a “Grand Military Spectacle by a Company of Zouave veterans,” the Tonawanda Tumbling Troupe, Divolo’s high dive stunt, plus the customary clowning, headed by the famed comic Ed Smith from the defunct Sells Brothers Circus. The adjacent County Fair offered carnival games and plenty of concessions, and the novel attractions: Madame Aurora Egypta Mystica, the Incubator Baby (“See how science is aiding in caring for the little ones,”) and the “Jeffries and Johnson Life-like representation of what the big go will be,” a reference to the “Fight of the Century” between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries that was to take place that summer.
(2) Two 8x10 photographs of home-grown Y.M.C.A. talent: One, a group of teenage boys assembled in an acrobatic pose onstage; the other, a cast of younger boys dressed in classic circus costumes (including a two-person elephant). The boys in the large cast photo are holding a sign that can faintly be made out to read “Gold Dust [ ] Agency” and has a box of Fairbanks Gold Dust Washing Powder and the silhouette of the controversial “Gold Dust twins.” Both photographs with creasing and wear; the acrobatics photograph also has a 3-inch repaired closed tear at the right edge.
(3) Prospectus for Max Kunkely’s “World’s Fair and Society Circus,” 3 leaves attached at one end and rolled: form letter, illustration of the proposed stall facades on coated pink paper (11 x 14 inches), and blueprint of a proposed fairground (11 x 28 inches). Two areas of abrasion on the pink illustration and several closed edge tears, Very Good overall. “In the present era of advancement in all things, the pleasure and amusement seeking public in general is always on the lookout for something new, something better than the average in moral up-lift and standard…”
The blueprint outlines a midway of traditional carnival games and attractions, including a shooting gallery, “spot the spot”, teddy bear wheel, Dancing Pavilion, Band Stand, and Merry-Go-Round, Side Show and capacious Circus tent. It also provides for a host of "World’s Fair” inspired pavilions, which were a fashionable way for organizers to promote circuses and carnivals as having educational value. Such installations ranged from the American Log Cabin and Court House, to the exotic Turkish Smoking Rooms, French Villa, Gipsy Tent, Palm Garden and Japanese structures. Illustrations of the proposed facades are given on the pink attachment, drawing in an innocent style to help convey a wholesome atmosphere.
Promoter M. E. Kunkely was the son of Max R. Kunkely (1829-1910), a German immigrant who worked as a sailmaker before patenting a “lap lacing” technique for tents that garnered him respect amongst New York businessmen and circus professionals alike (he had a flattering bio included in History and Commerce of New York, 1891 and a handsome tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery (NY) featuring a circus tent in low relief).
Max E. learned the tentmaking trade from his father but also had something of a checkered past. He served over two years at Sing Sing Prison after being convicted of Grand Larceny on Christmas Eve, 1884. The prison admission register notes his “dark and sallow” complexion, about 5’7” with a small scar on his left eye. According to the 1900 census, Kunkely returned to working as a tentmaker after his discharge. Based on the letter's date, his circus promotion endeavor started toward the end of that decade, but after his father died in 1910, Max E. took over the tent business. The move generated controversy with his father’s widow, who tried to continue selling tents under the Kunkely name. But the business formerly advertised under “M. R. Kunkely” was easily redirected to “M. E. Kunkely.” Max E. advertised in The Billboard trade magazine that he was the proper successor to the M. R. Kunkely tent business and that “owing to the actions of the widow” he had been prevented from receiving business correspondence and that all inquiries should be submitted to a different address–the one listed on his “World’s Fair” prospectus.
Whatever Kunkely’s involvement in the Y.M.C.A. “Mammoth Combined Array of the Wonders of the World,” the partial form date printed on the letters (“191 “) suggests Max Kunkely’s “World’s Fair and Society Circus” was a new, and evidently short-lived, enterprise. We could locate no reference to the production in trade magazines or circus histories. It may well have been the first and last of his productions, or, given the timing of his father’s death and subsequent takeover of the tent business, he may never have produced an event at all.
The Niagara Falls YMCA, its youth performers and county fair, the spectacle of the circus, and an inscrutable figure angling to get things in motion–this collection of items represent an endeavor at the intersection of business, community, industry, and entertainment distinctly evocative of American spirit at the turn of the century.