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Circus & Wild West
15 delightful designs for traveling shows and Buffalo Bill's performances

From early Barnum & Bailey designs to Buffalo Bill, these fanciful images harken back to an era of spectacular shows.

120. General Tom Thumb. 1867.
4 x 12 1/4 in./10 x 31 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500

Before Chéret revolutionized the aesthetic possibilities of the poster, handbills laden with type were commonplace promotions. This very small notice packs in a whole lot of information about the American return of General Tom Thumb, his wife Miss Lavinia Warren, and the married couple Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren. The text details their European adventures, which include meeting Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and appearing before Napoleon and the French Court at the Tuileries. And for their one-day-only performance at Eckel Hall in Hanover, PA, entertainment abounds: impersonations, duets and dances, elaborate costumes, a magnificent miniature coach drawn by the smallest ponies in the world, and more. Ladies and children are urged to attend the day exhibition so as to avoid “the crowd and confusion of the evening performances.” The text also tell us that this will be the last performance of the Tom Thumb Troupe before they retire into private life. Rare!

122. Barnum & Bailey / The Paldrens. 1915.
27 3/8 x 36 7/8 in./69.6 x 93.8 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

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.

127. Lord John Sanger / Troupeau d’Éléphants. ca. 1898.
By Pal (Jean de Paléologue, 1860-1942)
113 3/4 x 81 1/8 in./289 x 213.7 cm
Est: $7,000-$9,000

This is one of at least two massive and impressive designs Pal created for Lord John Sanger (for another poster, see PAI-LXXXII, 122). This billboard allows us to take in the magnificence of “the largest herd of trained elephants in the whole world” as they engage in music orchestration and military exercises. Sanger’s circus career started as a child, when he and his brother, George, assisted their father with peep shows and magic tricks. In 1845, the brothers launched their own circus in London, focusing mostly on equestrian acts. The Sanger Circus went on to become one of the most well-known and beloved troupes in England. But after 1871, the brothers—who both added “Lord” to their names as adults—decided to forge their own paths in the circus. It was at this point that John added elephants and lions to his menagerie. This is a four-sheet billboard, lined in two units—and the only known copy!

128. Buffalo Bill’s / Pawnee Bill’s / Cowgirl : Maquette. 1912.
8 1/2 x 38 in./21.6 x 96.5 cm
Est: $4,000-$5,000

This painting is the preparatory work for a poster advertising Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East. Towards the end of Buffalo Bill’s career, he teamed up with Pawnee Bill for one last hurrah. But instead of depicting the male leaders—as most posters did—this artist focused on a lovely female member of the troupe, which reinforces her vigor and independence. The final poster, a 1/3 sheet upright, was printed by the United States Lithograph Company’s Russell-Morgan plant.

129. Buffalo Bill’s / Pawnee Bill’s / Indian Maiden : Maquette. 1912.
8 1/8 x 38 in./20.2 x 96.5 cm
Est: $4,000-$5,000

A companion piece to the previous lot, this sublime painting was also a study for a finalized poster for Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill’s combined performances (see inset). As in the previous painting, this portrait celebrates feminine strength and sovereignty, but the emphasis here is on Native American prowess. In fact, Buffalo Bill was a strong advocate for Native Americans. In closing his autobiography, “Buffalo Bill’s Own Story,” he wrote: “The Indian makes a good citizen, a good farmer, a good soldier. He is a real American, and all those of us who have to share with him the great land that was his heritage should do their share toward seeing that he is dealt with justly and fairly, and that his rights and liberties are never infringed by the scheming politician or the shortsighted administration of the law” (p. 327-328). That sentiment is just as relevant today. The final poster from this image was also printed by the United States Lithograph Company’s Russell-Morgan plant, and its title (“Indian Maiden”) also appears verso in the printer’s notation.

131. The Life of Buffalo Bill in 3 Reels. 1912.
28 1/4 x 48 3/8 in./72 x 123 cm
Est: $3,000-$4,000

“In 1912, ‘The Life of Buffalo Bill’… told Cody’s life story, beginning with a scene in which he rides through a river, looking for Indians or game. Cody rides up to the camera, with hat back, left hand up… his trusty Winchester ‘73 rifle clutched in his right hand… Since there is a story line to the sequence… the film is much more advanced than the Wild West [shows] and is classified as one of the first Westerns. Cody was attempting to move the Wild West show from the arena into movie theaters. But in his sixties, he was a bit old to become a cinema star and capitalize on the new medium, try as he did” (Buffalo Bill/Legend, p. 227-228). The top scene is “First Scalp for Custer,” and the poster promises “Thrilling incidents in the life of the last of the great scouts.” The film was produced by Buffalo Bill-Pawnee Bill Film Co., and this image includes a tip-on for its distributor, Barnsdale Films.

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