Monday, March 17, 2014

The Civil War created a boom for Yankee's circus

Yankee Robinson
Would you take a free ticket from this man?

He was a 19th century American showman and circus entrepreneur named Fayette Lodawick Robinson. In a country where a powerful anti-immigrant political movement would rise out of the ashes of the Whig Party in the 1850s, the name sounded a bit too foreign, not to mention flamboyant. He adopted the professional name Yankee Robinson, a decision that would have consequences.

Robinson was born in Avon, N.Y., in 1818 and learned the shoemaking trade from his father. Between 1837 and 1845 he followed in his father's footsteps, but the lure of the road finally drew him to his true calling.

The country was in the final stages of the Second Great Awakening, during which millennialists, utopians and communalists popped up everywhere. With a collection of religious paintings in his buggy, Robinson set out for the West, giving exhibitions along the way.

Before long he found work as a singer and actor in traveling troupes, circuses and a floating theater on the Mississippi River. He took the name “Yankee” in 1852 and built his own circus and comic show a few years later. One staple in the repertory was a minstrel based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It was during this period that he hit upon the idea of dispensing “free tickets” to his show. He acquired a large number of 1854 and ’55 half dollars and had them counterstamped “Free Ticket to Yankee Robinsons Quadruple-Show.” Advertising on coins was common at the time, and defaced coins retained their face value. Apparently when Robnson brought his show into a new town, he used these half dollars to pay his expenses. Then he accepted the “free tickets” for admission. But of course he kept the coins, so the free tickets cost each lucky recipient half a dollar.

Free ticket!
One possible measure of the success of this sales ploy is the large number of such coins still in existence. Another is that Robinson again used common currency to advertise his show during the Civil War.

In 1857, the U.S. Mint abandoned the large cent and began making pennies roughly the size of pennies today. Until 1864, the new pennies were made of copper-nickel on a thicker planchet than modern cents. In 1861 private coin manufactures – die-sinkers – began issuing patriotic tokens heralding the war effort. They also made cent-size merchant tokens that advertised the businesses that bought them. These were known as storecards and circulated as legal tender.

Robinson was prolific user of storecards. His bust adorned some of them, and others depicted him from waist to top hat with a musket on his shoulder above the legend “Yankee Robinson The Great Comedian.” In all there were 21 variations of Robinson tokens in bronze, copper, copper-nickel and tin. Presumably he would set up his tent in a community, and he and his minions would freely spend the tokens in town as advertisements for the show.

In 1859, Robinson’s chosen name betrayed him. When John Brown and his band raided Harpers Ferry, Yankee and his circus happened to be in Charleston, S.C. He fled, leaving his tent and equipment where they stood.

The front and back of a Yankee Robinson storecard.. Such tokens were
used as pennies during the Civil War and served as ads for the circus. 
Robinson’s business prospered during the war, as did shows of almost any kind. He and a partner had receipts of $1 million in 1865.

A newspaper account of Robinson’s show the following year makes it clear it had grown into a full-fledged circus – “The Great Yankee Robinson Circus,” as the Quincy, Ill., paper called it. “Besides many cages, chariots, wagons, etc., the procession was headed by the magnificent forty-horse-band-car, which in itself was a sight worth seeing,” the paper reported.

Robinson was a hit in Chicago on that tour and moved on to Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee Press also gushed over the mile-long procession. Robinson owned a camel, a small elephant and a bull that acted with “great agility,” the Press reported. “Yank knows how to run a circus and will be in full blast today and tomorrow at the Second Ward Park.”

The vagaries of showmanship caught up with Robinson during the 1870s. He went broke and dropped out of sight. But he had one final act in 1884 when he teamed up with the five Ringling brothers, a family of jugglers and actors. Alas, “Yankee Robinson and the Ringling Brothers” lasted only a few months. At 4 p.m. on Sept. 4, Robinson died in New-Jefferson, Iowa. He was 66 years old.

His obituary in the New York Times cited his Shakespearean acting career and his role as “The Drunkard” in a circus skit. The obituary also hailed him as second in renown only to P.T. Barnum as a circus impresario.

The Times added that Yankee was descended from the eminent divine John Robinson, who had come to America with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and helped found the Congregational Church. Perhaps this was true.

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