The tents have been struck; the great Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus is now a part of history, its final shows closing in 2017. P.T. Barnum is now a figment of imagination in the new movie, “The Greatest Showman.” But for over 120 years, “My circus animals were all on show,” as W.B. Yeats said, “Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot, / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.” What remains are memories – and these posters.
“Circus posters are among the most important printing accomplishments of the nineteenth century and the most common surviving artifacts of the great age of the circus,” Kenneth L. Ames writes in The Circus in America. However, “Circus posters are largely absent from art-historical studies of posters,” which is absurd, given the extreme detail and imagination and panoramic scope on display, and the flamboyance of the copywriting. “For better of worse, the development of advertising as a sophisticated part of marketing… owes much to the American circus of the 19th century” (p. 15).
27 1/4 x 37 in./69.3 x 94 cm
Beginning in 1880, and continuing until World War II, Coney Island was the single biggest amusement area in the United States. For more than a century it’s been adored for the pure carnival fantasy of it, the mass congregation of its sideshow characters, and an atmosphere of devil-may-care lunacy. This classic poster was used by Barnum & Bailey for their British tour of 1898-1899, and served to enhance the reputation of this freewheeling national treasure in New York City. A visual delight as well as a historic document of great interest, this image was also published in the more common horizontal format (see PAI-XIV, 20). Bottom text reads: “Remarkable head-foremost dives from enormous heights into shallow depths of water, together with thrilling & daring aquatic & sub-aqueous feats of every description.”
26 7/8 x 17 1/4 in./68.3 x 44 cm
The great Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus operated between 1896 and 1911, after which it folded itself into the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus. This poster, from 1911, is Forepaugh’s last hurrah, and what a delirious extravaganza it is! On either side of the great clown head, sheer lunacy is erupting: daredevil drivers, giraffe-neck climbers, pig-carriage racers, head-popper-offers, firemen, thieves, sheriffs, ink-spillers, brass-band thumpers, and a cavalcade of incorrigible clowns abounds.
27 3/8 in. x 36 7/8 in./69.6 x 93.8 cm
The Paldrens! “Sensational jumping, balancing and pyramiding on burning lamps. Their first appearance in America.” Why the Paldrens took to balancing themselves on and between lamps, especially when suspended from propeller planes, is beyond us. Apparently they were still performing in 1921, according to a California paper, but they had gained two men and apparently lost several women from their act. Small cameos of Barnum & Bailey occupy the upper left corner.
29 5/8 x 39 1/8 in./75.3 x 99.3 cm
It’s apocryphal: we’re not entirely sure P.T. Barnum actually said “There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take ’em,” but that doesn’t mean derivative con-artists didn’t take his lead. Circuses were such a large money maker around the turn of the century, many fake and fly-by-night operations emerged, either taking the ticket sale money and running out of town or performing with far fewer acts and animals than originally advertised. Having the owners’ sober faces on a poster instilled confidence in potential customers. “As a general thing,” P.T. Barnum actually said, “I have not ‘duped the world’ nor attempted to do so… I have generally given people the worth of their money twice told.”
29 1/4 x 38 3/4 in./74.2 x 98.3 cm
A universe of delight is held within the margins of this astonishingly, impossibly detailed Barnum & Bailey poster from 1912. Clockwise, from upper left: “Presenting This Year The Most Magnificent Free Street Parade Ever Seen,” with Austro-Hungarian horse-masters leading a throng of Turks on camels and Indians on elephants; “A Congress of Japan’s Strong Men, Gladiators, Swordsmen, Wrestlers, Jiu-Jitsu and Athletic Champions”; “World’s Biggest Menagerie”; “The Grandeur and Opulence of Cleopatra’s Court”; “A Ballet of 300 Entrancingly Beautiful Dancing Girls” for Cleopatra’s Pageant; “Cleopatra…Watching the Approach of the Roman Conqueror Mark Antony”; and “Winston’s Remarkable Bare-Back Riding, Juggling, Acrobatic Seals.” The top frieze is a border of various circus elements dominated by an elephant’s trunk.
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