Rat Sheets

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The last few years have seen the growth of what is known as “comparative advertising”: commercials that, rather than flogging a product with simple hyperbole, actually name competitors and specify their deficiencies. This trend has whipped up an enormous amount of controversy in the advertising industry, but in fact it is merely the timid revival of a century-old American circus tradition.

In an era when half a dozen circuses might play a large town in a season, the earlier arrivals had the advantage. Competitors posted advertisements—circus people called them “rat sheets”—in hopes of convincing would-be customers that the incoming show was a shabby fraud, and that they should save their money for a real circus. The untrammeled venom of these broadsides is astonishing to our libel-conscious era, but a few decades ago it was all in a day’s work for one circus owner publicly to call another a liar, a drunkard, an adulterer, a traitor, and a thief.

A particularly vigorous rivalry sprang up between the great P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, who had run the supreme American circus before Barnum got into the game in 1871. In 1881 Barnum issued the two-sided handbill at right accusing Forepaugh of buying up all his outdated equipment; the public-spirited Forepaugh then exposed Barnum’s “Gross exaggeration! Without a single word of truth! … in the interest of the people.” In time the conflict became so wearying that the two men agreed to tour the Eastern and Western states in alternate years.

Forepaugh did not confine his attacks to Barnum. In the sheet on page 36, he chose the Socratic method and treated the citizens of St. Joseph to a lengthy series of questions before calling the owners of the Great European Consolidated Circus swindlers. This would seem to be strong enough, but no sheet ever surpassed in ferocity the one (also on page 36) issued in 1882 by the Grand Circus Royal against the Inter-Ocean, whose agent, a “demented shallow-brained Scab and Filthy Cur” was accused of wishing to erect a MONUMENT OF GOLD to President Garfield’s assassin. Moreover, it was charged, he lied about having electric lighting. Other rat sheets freely admitted that their opposition had electricity, but claimed that it caused baldness, blindness, and that great nineteenth-century bugaboo, lost manhood.

The rat sheet was not a medium of much subtlety, but the Ringling Brothers showed an unusual amount of finesse in their attack on Carl Hagenbeck. When America entered the First World War, they issued the broadside on page 37, which accused Hagenbeck of being the Kaiser’s pawn, on whose “Every Wagon and Railroad car … the Coat-of-Arms of Germany was Painted and Brazenly Flaunted in the Faces of all True Americans. … “An unusually tepid rebuttal, with the word “German” tactlessly printed in huge type, appears next to it. Ostensibly issued by Hagenbeck, it was in fact put out by the Ringlings to keep the controversy alive. Not that Hagenbeck cared much one way or the other; the German showman had sold his circus to an American producer back in 1907.—R.F.S.