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STEP RIGHT UP! TO THE WORLD
OF CIRCUS POSTERS

by Bob Brooke

Early Circus History
Circus Advertising

Poster Production

Identifying and Dating Circus Posters

Different Posters for Different Purposes

Circus Poster Reproductions

The Market for Circus Posters

"LADEEZ AND GENTLEMEN, CHILDREN OF ALL AGES! WELCOME TO THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.," shouts the ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus as the performers and animals march into the tent in the grand parade. America’s love affair with the circus, lasting over 200 years, has survived the minstrel show, the medicine show, and vaudeville.

Weeks ahead of the show, an air of anticipation came to towns across America as advance men, wielding buckets of paste and long-handled brushes, pasted huge, bright circus posters over faded auction and political signs and placed cards in store windows within a 50-mile radius of the circus site. Boys and girls stood before them and gawked, as they inhaled the pungent smell of fresh paste.

What better way to relive the nostalgia of those bygone shows than to collect bright, and often artistic, circus posters. Circuses played on the fantasies of the common man. Posters advertised stupendous acts with words like electrifying, d’equitation, noble, liliputian, amazon, bravest, world famous, and exotic. They promised showgoers snarling lions from darkest Africa and elephants from the exotic East, along with aerialists performing daring acts high in the air and lady equestrians in glittering tights. P.T. Barnum, always the master showman, knew that the circus brought joy into the humdrum, and often sad lives of its patrons. And circus posters reflected that in their bright, colorful illustrations and myriad of type styles. Today, these same posters are highly collectible.

Early Circus History
Circuses, as they’re known today, began as equestrian exhibitions, which later added tumbling, rope-dancing and juggling. John Bill Rickets, a first-class trick rider from Britain, gave the first circus performance in 1793 at The Riding School in Philadelphia.

After the War of 1812, circus owners replaced the permanent equestrian type shows with rolling shows that pitched their tents on village greens. These became the direct descendants of the tented circuses of today. The first to put on a traveling show was Hackaliah Bailey, who, in 1815, purchased Old Bet, an African elephant, from a sea captain for $1,000. Bailey had such success in presenting Old Bet to the local townspeople and farmers, he arranged to purchase additional exotic animals from other ship captains.

America grew and changed as did the circus. In 1884, five brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin--Al, Alf, Charles, John, and Otto Ringling–who not only had a flair for showmanship but were superb businessmen, started a circus. When they took over the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1908, they could stake a legitimate claim to the title "Greatest Show on Earth." Since 1919 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, also known as "The Big One," has traversed the country.

The American circus has left a legacy of collectibles–sequin-bedecked acrobatic costumes, floppy clown hats, and paper items of all kinds. But it’s the latter, especially posters, that have become the hottest items sought by collectors. Referred to as bills, slang for "handbills," they became an important element in the success of any circus early on.

Circus Advertising
Advertising a circus was a challenge before radio, T.V. and the Internet. To be successful, a circus owner had to market his show–which often ran for only a day–from scratch just about every week. To stay ahead of the competition from competing shows, an owner had to create a brand name (his circus’ title) that would be so recognizable as to generate repeat patrons for his circus. In addition, he had to advertise the features of his show to set it apart from others. And, finally, he had to display the date of the show prominently so patrons could plan to attend.

Poster Production
To create poster illustrations, early 19th-century printers used mahogany wood blocks for wood engravings and pine blocks for cruder woodcuts. Because the mahogany blocks were expensive and the engravings hard to make, printers used them over and over again for different show posters. Many early posters, printed on bright white, medium- weight rag paper with oil-based inks, included the name of the show, with a date added later by the circus’ advance crew.

The invention of the lithographic printing process in the 1798 by Aloys Senefelder, a German map inspector, drastically changed poster production. Using this process,, which depends on the mutual repulsion of water and grease, printers applied a design using a greasy crayon or liquid onto a 28 x 42-inch block of limestone. Then onto the wet stone they would roll oil-based ink, which would adhere to the greasy drawing or painting, and run it through a press to transfer the image onto dampened paper. Though sparingly used for almost 50 years after it appeared, it had become an indispensable tool for printers by the 1880s.

Printers enlisted the services of the finest artists to design circus posters. However, few signed their work. While some specialized in particular subjects, most worked in teams to create the posters in a more or less assembly line process. Therefore, posters became known by the companies that printed them and not by the artists who created them.

"Probably the greatest image ever produced as a circus poster design was that of a leaping tiger, designed by the noted illustrator Charles Livingston Bull in 1914," said Neil C. Cockerline, circus historian. "This particular image may well be the most recognizable circus image in history, and it is still utilized today, often appearing in set and costume designs in current productions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus."

Printers offered stock poster designs featuring acrobats, clowns, elephants and other wild animals to which they added the show title and date. Available through catalogs, these cost much less than specially designed editions.

"It was not uncommon for more than one circus to use the same poster designs in the same season, the only difference being the show title on the posters," added Cockerline. "Printed stock posters might remain in storage for years until they were sold to a circus to be used. It is not uncommon to find posters used during a specific year which had actually been printed decades before."

Printers based a poster’s dimensions on the size of the printing bed. After the introduction of lithography, the size of a litho stone, called a sheet, became the standard. So printers identified posters in units of sheets or half-sheets. Horizontal posters became known as flats and verticals, uprights. Larger posters came in multiple sheet sizes from 2 to 24. The combination of sheets determined the type of poster produced.

Identifying and Dating Circus Posters
Circus posters can be identified by their creases since all needed to be folded for storage and shipment, and each show printer folded his posters in a slightly different way. But they can also be dated by looking for date sheets–smaller papers pasted onto posters indicating the day and date of the show and only good for one day and town–as well as date tags, small strips pasted along the bottoms of pictorial one and half-sheet posters by advance billing crews. These can help a collector identify the year a circus used a poster since shows kept yearly records of their routes, which are now housed in museums such as the Hertzberg Circus Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

According to Cockerline, when billposters and lithographers became unionized by the 1950s, any poster put up got a Billposter's Union Stamp, which is another way of dating a poster.

Different Posters for Different Purposes
Circuses used a variety of posters to advertise their shows. Printers created half-sheet and full-sheet panels featuring horizontal or vertical illustrations especially to fill narrow spaces in store windows, to allow advertising without covering too much of the window display. One-sheet panels measured 21"x 54". Half-sheet panels, printed with either vertical or horizontal designs, measured 14"x 42." Guttersnipe referred to circus paper several feet wide by only a few inches high that was intended to go on rain gutters over store fronts; and "banners," for outdoor displays, were usually mounted on thin stiff cloth.

Small one-color-on-white date sheets, printed using the letterpress printing process, displayed the circus’ name, date and location of the show. Advance men plastered these all over a town several weeks before a circus was to arrive. Thus, circuses were the first to use saturation advertising.

Window cards or placards, consisting of an image printed on a facing sheet backed with cardboard, were another form of poster, usually in quarter-sheet dimensions or less often in odd-sized dimensions between a quarter- and half-sheet size.

In the mid-1970's, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey adopted a policy of using only a single poster design for each edition of their circus, often incorporating a variety of featured acts or attractions in the design. The poster designs also incorporated large blank spaces allowing for localized information to be printed in as needed, thus eliminating the need for date tags and date sheets. By the late 1970's, few circuses even used posters, and many shows opted to use window cards only, which could be placed indoors or simply be stapled to telephone poles outside.

According to circus aficionados, the finest printer of circus posters was Strobridge & Company of Cincinnati. Today, Strobridge posters are the most popular with collectors.

Circus Poster Reproductions
Any printed design can at some time be reproduced. "In any collectible market that warrants high prices for items, you’ll always run into people reprinting originals," said Brad Hopper of Track16vintage.com, of Santa Monica, CA. "In some cases it hurts the market, especially when people don't care that it’s original, but in most cases, it just shows that

there’s a high demand for the originals. Serious collectors must have the original or they don't collect the item at all."

According to Alan Wigton, owner of Little Journeys Bookshop of Mansfield, Ohio, there are many circus poster reproductions, usually of smaller sizes done for resale at circus shows. "Most circus posters sold on eBay are these, " he said. "Outright fakes are perhaps less of a problem than with other collecting areas. But collectors have to learn the reproductions if they’re interested in the more exotic older images."

Wigton added that the broad range of post-war posters are a bit tougher to sell than some of the other circus ephemera from the period such as programs, route books, etc. "Prices are pretty affordable as a result," he said. "Prices of pre-World War I and late 19th century posters are a different story. They’re scarce, of course, with a few deep pocket collectors ready to pay for the best ones. In all areas there’s a certain amount of market for circus posters as decoration, without respect to collecting, per se."

Wigton noted that most collectors of circus material go for a few posters to augment a collection, but they find it tough to display more than a few and aren't as avid about them.

The Market for Circus Posters
"One interesting thing I found...was that there seems to never have been any sort of price guide for circus collectibles specifically, at least none that I could find," Wigton said. "People who like circuses are beer and hot dog types. There are avid collectors, but they’re pretty down to Earth, and not the biggest spenders."

Generally speaking, circus posters can sell anywhere from $30 to $375. With such a broad range, collectors must take the specific circus, date, and condition into consideration. At the low end might be a mint (never hung) Famous Cole 3 Ring Circus poster with black type on 44" x 28" yellow stock, with show name and motto in type as much as 10 inches high for $30. At the high end might be a rare Cole Bros. Circus 22½" x 42½" poster from the Erie Litho. & Ptg Co., Erie PA., with the title, "Cole Bros. Circus Presents Quarter- Million Pound Act of Performing Elephants–The Most Colossal Train Animals Display Ever Presented" for $375 (Antique Carta, Richardson, TX)

Circus placards sell for $25 to $60. For $25, a collector might find a very good Shill Bros. Trained Animal Circus 14"x22" poster with red type on a white card, with a date but no town. This was a "Here" poster, often used by smaller "mud" or overland traveling shows with a one-man advance who booked and placed advertising the same day. At the high end might be a weathered Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus four-color, 14"x22" poster by the Acme Show Print Co., featuring a face-painted clown entering the big top, from Wooster, Ohio with date for $60. All of the above items, except where noted, are listed in the catalog of the Little Journeys Bookshop, Mansfield, OH.

The largest and most active collectors’ group for circus materials is Circus Fans of America. According to Wigton, their annual convention attracts hundreds of people buying and selling circus items.

The circus is still a vital part of American culture, however, much of the advertising is now handled by the media through T.V. and radio ads. The gaudy posters once plastered on building walls have succumbed to the brightly colored advertising of the 21th Century.

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