Volume 17, Number 2 .... May 1995
1993 marked the 200th anniversary of the first circus performance in America. In Philadelphia in April, 1793, John Bill Ricketts, a British trick rider, brought together equestrians, acrobats, rope dancers, and clowns to present the first circus performance as we know it today. The history of the circus in America is basically recorded in a paper trail, now over two hundred years long.
Probably the most important element in that paper trail is the poster which, incidentally, is a word not found in the vocabulary of the circus. Posters were always referred to as "bills" from the early use of handbills, or later, "lithos", irrespective of whether they were produced by lithography or not. The purpose of this article is to offer insight into the history of the circus poster, including original manufacturing procedures, types of posters produced, component parts of posters (which are now often altered or lost), and how posters were originally used within the context of the circus itself. All of these factors may directly affect how a conservator may or should approach the conservation of these artifacts.
Figure 1. Beautiful stone lithograph one-sheet poster shown in raking light originally printed for the Campbell Bros. and Lucky Bill Shows Combined in 1924. The circus only lasted one year and the leftover posters were shelved in hopes of being sold in the future. In 1938, Newton Bros. Circus used the posters by attaching a letterpress printed title of their own name over "Campbell Bros."
Apparently the Lucky Bill part of the title didn't matter. Note the prominent vertical crease down the center of the poster and the additional horizontal creases, all of which are original to the manufacture, storing and shipping of the poster. These creases should not be lost during conservation treatment. (Author's Collection)
In this age of automatic and immediate global information, it is hard to comprehend what Circus Day might have meant to our parents and grandparents when they were growing up, especially those forebears who were based in an agrarian society formulated around the home and hearth. In an age when travel consisted of going to town, or perhaps the county seat, and when people often were born, raised, lived, worked and died within a few square miles, the circus was more than passing entertainment. It was a traveling world of wonder and marvel. When those brightly colored printed sheets of paper appeared overnight announcing the cavalcade of stupendous features that the Big Show would be bringing for one day only, it is hard to imagine the excitement and anticipation that would be instilled in children of all ages. The key to success for every circus was advertising, and the key to advertising for the first 175 years of the circus in America was the circus poster.
From the beginning, the American circus as an institution was completely self-contained. In fact, circuses operated as their own mobile cities carrying with them all of the equipment and services they needed to exist. The only component of the entire operation which the circus was dependent on outsiders or "towners" for was the printing of posters. While circus advertising was always an in-house production, the printing of posters was always handled by outside companies.
Circuses took on the hardest advertising assignment possible--the hard sell of a product available only on a single day--a much more difficult challenge than selling a product that is available in many markets for a long period of time. The circus had to effectively market itself 150 to 200 times a year to succeed. Circuses faced a 3-way marketing task of having to sell their title, date and feature. A show's title had to guarantee that the circus was a quality enterprise with the highest of standards. Also, name recognition meant repeat customers year after year. The date was of major importance, since potential customers would have to reserve time in their schedules to attend the show. Lastly, the feature was important to promote a worthy product which set the show apart from and hopefully above all the rest. The objective of all circus posters was to get these three points across.
Circus general agents, the ballyhoo artists who strategized marketing campaigns, invented many marketing tools still in use today. General agents were masters of market selection, utilizing every factor of demographics. They invented free coupons, given to farm ladies for instance, as an enticement to bring the whole family. They invented "junk mail", sending out thousands of printed heralds each week to postal customers. Challenged by the notion of "if you've seen one, you've seen them all", general agents developed two key marketing techniques. These included the concept of "bigger and better than ever" and disparaging "brand X" competitors with slogans such as "Wait for the Big Show" or "After the Minnow Comes the Whale". The circus also invented the concept of saturation advertising, often posting in cities with 50 to 100 standard sized billboards, 15,000 to 20,000 poster sheets, or the equivalent of 626 to 833 standard billboards.
The circus spent more for advertising than any other component of its operation, and for most of show history, the poster was the single most important element. Because of this, show posters constituted one of the principle products of the commercial printing industry through the 19th century.
Show printing was one of the earliest specialties in the commercial printing industry. In 1786, seven years before Astley's Circus, an equestrian by the name of Mr. Poole used bills produced by a printer named Carter. This may have been John Carter, once an apprentice in the print shop of Benjamin Franklin, and later a partner in the firm of Carter & Wilkinson in Providence, Rhode Island. Carter & Wilkinson printed broadsides or bills to advertise the first elephant in the United States in 1797. These were primarily letterpress-printed bills with a graphic depiction from a wood engraving. In 1822, Jonas Booth installed the first steam powered printing press in America, greatly multiplying his production capacity and lowering costs. Booth's printing concern became the first major show printing firm in the United States.
From the very beginning, showmen and, in turn, printers, recognized the notion that "a picture is worth a thousand words"; thus illustrations were incorporated very early. These took the form of wood engravings, or in some cases cruder woodcuts. Engravings from mahogany blocks, however, were difficult to make and expensive, so printers used them sparingly and repeatedly. The same images would be used over and over again, often for different shows, originating the concept of "stock" posters which will be explained below. Most early posters were produced in mass, and most shows would utilize a single design, often with only a printed title. Other information, such as dates and locations would be handwritten by circus advance men, or in some cases, stamped with ink. In the relatively few extant examples from the early 19th century, it is not uncommon to see multiple dates and locations written in varying media, including pencil and iron gall ink, in differing hands, along with stamped information in various inks, on a single poster. In fact, posters might have been placed in central locations such as popular taverns or blacksmith shops for surrounding performances at different locales. They could then be updated for different performances over a period of time. For this reason, conservators must be extremely careful in making judgments as to originality of such inscriptions.
By the middle 1830's, Richard Hoe, a printing press manufacturer who used Napier's cylindrical principle, was making printing presses capable of printing posters in dimensions of six by eight or nine feet. These were still letterpress-printed posters with wood engraved or woodcut illustrations. Hoe was also one of the earliest printers who was investing in menageries and circuses, realizing the financial gains to be made from developing popular entertainment. In fact, throughout the history of the circus in America, show printers often had financial interests in circuses.
By 1840, Joseph Morse devised a means to replace mahogany with pine blocks, which were much less expensive, easier to obtain, and were more easily carved. He also devised a way to adhere blocks together, allowing for relatively large illustrations. The use of pictorial posters exploded. Morse originally was seeking a method for color printing, and the use of multiple blocks for single ink colors brought about color printing technology, and an early concept for color separation in printing.
In late 18th century Bavaria, Alois Senefelder perfected lithography--a printing process utilizing Bavarian limestone with a complex chemical process to transfer an oil-based or "grease" image onto the stone which would repel water during the printing process. In the most elementary of terms, lithography is based upon the fact that oil and water do not mix. Lithography would revolutionize the 19th century printing industry, and would have a profound effect on the production of circus posters. Senefelder also pioneered color printing utilizing his lithography technique. In a biography and textbook published in 1817, Senefelder stated that one could print in color using a separate stone for each individual color. He provided recipes for blue and red inks, but noted greens were problematic, he thereby suggested first printing in blue with an overlay of yellow to form green. He anticipated not only multi-colored lithographic prints of years later, but also the process of color separation as we know it today. Senefelder noted in 1817, that lithography had spread to Frankfort, Paris, Berlin and "even Philadelphia".
Initially, lithography was slow and costly, and show printers were reluctant to use the new technology. There were pioneers, however, including G. and W. Endicott of New York who were producing "lithos" in the 1840's. By the 1860's more shows were requesting lithos, but printers were still reluctant to retire their pine blocks. By 1880, however, lithography had taken over the show printing industry and the Golden Age of the circus poster had begun. Even so, one of the largest show printing firms of today, the Enquirer Printing Company of Cincinnati, produced a series of lithographic posters in the 1880's, but soon returned to woodblock images with letterpress text, believing that a market for such posters was still profitable. Indeed, they were correct, and continued printing circus posters with woodblock images from 19th century woodblocks as late as the 1970's. Then they converted woodblock images to offset printing methods.
Not surprisingly, since lithography was a Bavarian import, major lithographic printing companies developed in American cities which had large German immigrant populations, such as New York, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Erie, Pennsylvania. Many show printers originated in the job printing departments of various newspapers including the Buffalo Courier which grew into the Courier Printing Company, and the Cincinnati Enquirer which grew into the Enquirer Printing Company. In the minds of circus aficionados, however, no printer's work ever surpassed that of Strobridge & Company of Cincinnati.
Hines Strobridge joined Middleton, Wallace & Company, a printing firm, in 1854. By 1867, the other partners had departed and the business became Strobridge & Company, printing its first circus posters at about the same time for the Dan Rice Circus. During the 1870's, Strobridge & Company printed posters for a variety of shows, including their first for P.T. Barnum. Strobridge developed a reputation for printing the finest of circus posters. As a show printing firm, one of Strobridge's biggest assets was their commission salesman, A. A. Stewart, who covered the show field, and brought sales up to over 5 million sheets per year to the circus and theater industry. In 1909, Stewart mediated the purchase of the Barnum & Bailey Circus from the estate of James A. Bailey, by the Ringling Brothers. As part of the transaction, he also negotiated a deal whereby Strobridge & Company became the sole poster printer to the new circus conglomerate. By 1930, the Ringling Brothers organization, owned most of the major circuses in the United States, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, Sells-Floto, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sparks, John Robinson, Al G. Barnes, Adam Forepaugh-Sells Brothers, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
The actual production of circus posters from idea to finished product was a team effort. Even though most circus poster images are unsigned, they certainly were drawn by some of the most talented artists of the day. In fact, most circus posters were created as production art--much like the "original oil paintings" available at Airport Hotel Sales across the country today. Any number of artists might work on the overall design of a poster, and printing companies employed large numbers of artists. Oftentimes, specific artists specialized in certain subjects. For example, a single artist might specialize in lettering while another specialized in horses, and a third specialized in performer portraits, etc. In an individual poster many specialized artists would add their components to the single design. The artists became so adept at their craft that designs were often executed directly upon the lithographic stones, making concept drawings unnecessary. Artists often relied heavily on photo- graphs for design details. Photographs of the interiors of printing companies from the turn of the century show poster artists creating their designs from photographic images.
Poster artists were distinguished in other ways as well. The most important artists were the "black" artists who drew the black outlines for the design. Again, in an individual poster, more than one "black" artist might include subjects which were his particular specialty. Second were the color artists, who drew the individual areas for each color which was incorporated into the overall design. Most commonly, multiple colored posters included black inked stones, plus individual stones for each of the primary colors: red, blue and yellow. With only these four colors and the white of the paper support, amazingly detailed and naturalistic colored posters could be mass produced. There are examples of posters which utilized as many as fourteen different ink colors in a single printed design, but these were rare.
Another interesting detail in circus poster design was the common practice of having different artists working on individual stones to be used for the printing of very large posters composed of multiple sheets of paper. In these cases, it was essential that drawing styles between artists were formulaic, as one artist might be drawing the head and shoulders of a star performer, for example, while another drew the chest and torso, and yet another drew the legs and feet. For the most part, posters were identifiable by company only, and not by individual artist.
Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, individual artists were sometimes contracted to execute entire poster designs. Some of these posters do bear printed signatures or identification, and others do not. 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. 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. Bull's original poster image, however, does not bear his signature. Other noted artists were contracted to design posters throughout the years, including Lawson Wood, another noted illustrator whose humorous depictions of monkeys appeared on Collier's Magazine covers during the 1940's. Two of Wood's signed designs for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus first appeared in 1943. Other noted circus poster artists came from the ranks of circus advance departments. These included Maxwell Frederic Coplan whose photographic images appeared in signed posters for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, and Roland Butler and Forest Freeland, whose distinctive drawings appeared as poster designs for many circuses from the 1940's through the 1970's.
Circus posters generally may be divided into two categories, either "stock" posters or "specialty" posters. Stock posters were generic designs that each show printer produced that could be used by any circus. Stock subjects included various clowns, wild animals, performers--just about everything which any show might carry. Show printers would print very large runs of individual stock designs and store them. These posters were illustrated in catalogues and a circus owner or general agent could pick out designs and then have the title of his own show printed on them for use. Stock posters also were the most inexpensive to purchase because such large numbers of them were printed. 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. 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. As far as dating posters is concerned, both the date they were printed and the date they were used are extremely important historical information.
While a circus prepared to go on tour, it ordered all of its posters for the upcoming season. Show printers printed the entire year's supply of posters and stored them, shipping them out as the circus called for them. The printers then billed the circus as the posters were used, thus they carried a substantial financial risk should the show fail mid-season.
There was considerable financial risk in traveling circuses, and often shows would fold in mid-season, sometimes only after a few days or weeks after opening. In these instances, show printers might be stuck with a year's worth of posters with a useless title on them. Show printers would retain these posters however, and try to find ways to recoup their investments. For example, a show printer might print new letter press title tags to cover the original title, and offer them for a reduced rate to another circus. In other cases, show printers might simply cut off the old title and attach new title tags, utilizing the salvageable pictorial images. There were also many instances where new circuses were named based upon the leftover stock posters in a show printers warehouse. Examples of all these poster modifications may be found, thus conservators should be aware of the many alterations which may be original to a circus poster.
Specialty posters were designed for specific acts or features; they were used by individual shows only as long as the act was employed by the show. Specialty posters often featured very life-like portraits of featured performers or depictions of specific acts. Specialty posters also would include the names of the performers or acts. Before the advent of radio and television personalities, star circus performers were well-known and popular to the general public. The show that could advertise stars such as the Wallendas, Cristianis, or Zacchini, the Human Cannonball, made sure they had specialty posters to attract ticket buyers. Because of the individuality of specialty posters, they were more expensive than stock posters, but the return at the ticket wagon was well worth the investment. In some cases, specialty poster designs might eventually become stock posters, once the names were removed from the original litho stones. Competing circuses might also have similarly designed stock posters produced based on features from another show, hoping the general public was not savvy enough to differentiate between the original and the copy. In a few instances, circuses might get stuck with specialty posters which they couldn't use due to unforeseen circumstances. One example was a specialty poster designed for an aerial thrill act called the Man in the Moon, featured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1939. The performer fell during the opening engagement at Madison Square Garden in New York, thus the remaining posters were destroyed.
Figure 2. Cole Bros. Circus poster used during the 1943 and 1944 seasons. Although this poster appears to be a specialty poster for "The Great Grimes", there never was such an act. This poster was actually a stock poster and was used for whatever highwire act happened to be with the show. In fact, the poster was based on an earlier example with the same image from 1937, advertising the Gretonas, a famous highwire act. (Author's Collection)
There are very few extant concept drawings for circus posters. Concept drawings, however, were sometimes produced, often in conjunction with specialty posters commissioned by individual circuses. For many shows this was a common practice. Often circus owners had very specific ideas regarding the images used to advertise their shows, and some owners completely controlled the artistic content of their posters, often demanding alterations to a poster design to suit their own ideas. Charles Ringling, one of the original Ringling Brothers, had to approve every poster design, and he often demanded more costumed figures be added to indicate that the Ringling Brothers Circus carried a cast of thousands.
Figure 3. Original circus poster concept drawing probably for a quarter-sheet window card, circa 1930's. Note the extensive reworking of the drawing, including reversed positions of the seal and monkey, reduction in the size of the ball, and repositioning of the monkey's tail. In this example, not only the artist, but the printing company is unknown. (Author's Collection)
While circus posters remain some of the greatest examples of 19th and early 20th century lithography, the question of whether they were works of art or not was a consideration at the turn of the century. Around 1900, the Great Wallace Shows purchased another circus which had original poster designs produced by the Courier Printing Company. The new owners took the designs to another printer, the Donaldson Lithography Company, and had them copy the designs for use in their new posters. The Courier Company sued the Donaldson Company for copyright violation. A court ruled that copyright was available only for "works of art", and circus posters did not qualify as such, thus the Courier claim was denied. Upon appeal, however, the decision was ultimately overturned by the United States Supreme Court, in whose opinion circus posters were indeed works of art protected by copyright laws.
The dimensions of circus posters are extremely important historically, and may help in identifying the period of production. Originally, the sizes of random posters were based solely upon the size of the printing press bed, and thus varied greatly. Eventually, however, with lithography virtually taking over the printing industry, a unit of measure called a "sheet" was standardized at 28 by 42 inches. These dimensions were based upon the standard dimensions of a lithography stone that a single man could handle or carry. Circus posters were identified as "sheets" or multiples of sheets. Probably the most common were "one-sheets" measuring 28 by 42 inches, followed by "half-sheets" measuring 28 by 21 inches. "Flats" would have the poster in a horizontal format, while "uprights" would have a vertical orientation. Various multiple sheets were also produced including 2-, 3-, 4-, 6-, 8-, 12-,15-,16-, 20-, and 24-sheets, with corresponding multiple dimensions. Larger multiples were also produced in rare instances, including 100-sheet posters and larger, first for the W.W. Cole Circus, Forepaugh-Sells Brothers and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.
There were also some posters produced that did not adhere to the standard sheet dimensions. "Panels" were designed specifically for use in merchants' windows, to allow advertising without covering too much of the window display. One-sheet panels measured 54 inches long by 21 inches wide and one-half sheet panels, which were printed both with horizontal designs and vertical designs, measured 14 by 42 inches . "Streamers" were also printed, which had the show title one sheet high by from 2- to 28-sheets wide. These were used across the top of large pictorial posters.
For every pictorial poster show printers produced, they also printed numerous "date sheets". Date sheets included the show title, the town, the show date, and sometimes generic advertising text, such as "One Day Only","Wait for the Big Show", etc. These posters were printed by letterpress, usually in one color, either red or blue, or more rarely in two colors, usually red and blue, with overlapping areas appearing deep violet or black for a third color. Date sheets were printed in standard sheet sizes, along with smaller "date tags" (known also as "date strips" or "date tails") which would be pasted along the bottoms of pictorial one- and half-sheet posters by the circus' advance billing crews.
Figure 4. Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus poster from the early 1930's shown in raking light. A date tag has long since been torn off from the bottom, but the severe planar distortions are the result of remaining paper remnants and original flour paste adhesive. (Author's Collection, used with permission of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.)
Many pictorial posters which have survived to this day have had date tags torn off of them. It is common to find paper and adhesive residues along the bottoms of posters where date tags once existed. It cannot be overemphasized how important date tags are to the historical value of circus posters. They can be key evidence in identifying the year a poster was used, as most shows kept careful records of routes and tours which are still available for research today. A date tag on a poster which reads, "Tucson/Friday/June 5" may be traced with the show title to a route which dates the poster precisely to 1959. As mentioned before, large numbers of posters might be printed and stored, and might remain shelved until use several decades later. Historically, the date of use is just as important as the date of printing, and it is unfortunate that so much historical information has been lost or destroyed by the reckless removal of date tags.
Figure 5. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey poster first printed by Strobridge & Co. in 1925. The date tag identifies this poster as being used for a stand in Salem, Oregon on Saturday, August 27, 1927, according to published listings of the show's route. (Author's Collection, used with permission of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.)
A set of date sheets and tags were good for only one day and town; show printers could not make mistakes. Since circuses moved everyday, the logistics of shipping posters to circus advance crews was a complicated challenge. There was no room for error. Also, because circuses jealously guarded their routes from each other, show printers had to remain confidential neutral parties when dealing with individual clients.
In 1912, the advertising industry standardized billboards as 24-sheets with 12 by 25 foot frames. These dimensions allowed for a white border around the image, and this became the industry standard. More recently, the border has been eliminated in billboard ads which now use 30 sheets as a standard.
Show printers utilized some very specific practices when producing multiple sheet posters. Large multiple sheet posters were not supplied to the circus advance department in individual sheets, as this was completely impractical. Instead, poster sections were supplied in 4-sheet increments which were pasted together in a specific department of the show printing firm. Of interest to conservators is the fact that the adhesive of choice was flour paste, a type of wheat starch paste. When the four individual sheets were pasted together and allowed to dry, they were then carefully folded for storage in such a way that they could be unfolded by the circus billers and posted in a consistent method. All folding was standardized within individual printing companies. The circus billers were under extreme time pressure, and could not unfold each section to check orientation, etc. Each poster was therefore marked with an ink stamp on the reverse to identify the poster image, the section of the poster in the overall image, and as an indication of which corner of the poster would be first adhered during the posting process.
Figure 6. 16-sheet Sells-Floto specialty poster advertising Rose Milette in 1930, originally designed for another star, May Wirth, with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920's. Note that the poster is in four vertical 4-sheet sections, which is how it would have originally been sent from the printer. This poster was never used, perhaps because of the unprinted tear in the jawline of the portrait, or more likely, because a billposter decided to "charley" it. (Author's Collection, used with permission of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.)
Since all circus posters were folded for storage and shipment, from individual one-sheets to sections of large multiple sheets, all circus posters have inherent creases in them. These creases are very important historically, and since folding orientation between show printers might vary, the manner in which a poster is folded could possibly be used to identify the printer or the period in which the poster was produced. For these reasons, conservators must exercise restraint when flattening posters, for important information may easily be lost or altered. Also, there are usually ink losses along crease lines which often times are inpainted for aesthetic reasons during conservation treatment. Once again, this degree of compensation may easily mask important historic evidence, and when possible, it is best to avoid such compensation extremes.
Even though circus posters were produced by the thousands very cheaply, the materials utilized in their production were of higher quality than one might expect. Posters were printed on fairly high quality medium weight wove paper, usually bleached to a bright white color. While some wood pulp generally can be identified in standard poster paper, these paper substrates age quite well with proper storage and handling. Because of the volume of posters produced, and the fact that they were not meant to last beyond the few weeks they were used, it is interesting to note that a fairly high quality paper was the industry standard. There were two exceptions to this use of fairly high quality paper. The first was date tags which often were printed on poorer quality paper. Date tags often age far differenty from pictorial posters, often because the paper substrate contains high concentrations of wood pulp. The second exception was found in multiple layer substrates which were used for "window cards", and small shaped stand-up posters for use on countertops, etc. Window cards were posters, usually in quarter-sheet dimensions or less often in odd-sized dimensions between a quarter- and half-sheet size. These posters consisted of the pictorial image printed on the facing sheet of a multiple layer substrate. These substrates consisted of a facing sheet of a bleached white wove paper with a heavier cardboard backing, much like the substrates of today's cereal boxes. These cardboard supports may be problematic, often causing eventual discoloration of the printed facing sheet, however, this original structure is most important to maintain. In conservation practice, window cards should never have the facing sheets removed from the cardboard substrate. Such a treatment would completely compromise the artifact. Instead, proper storage of window cards and stand-ups in a controlled environment will do much to prolong the lives of these posters.
There is a great need for research into the various inks utilized in lithographic printing of circus posters. For the most part, inks used for printing circus posters were oil-based inks. Because posters were often hung out of doors, water soluble inks were not practical, and so were avoided. However, from treatment experience, I have encountered various inks that are soluble to some degree in water. One example is brown sepia-toned inks, often found in photographic images, which were commonly used from the early 1900's through the 1940's. In some cases these inks contain water soluble color components. During the washing of a poster from the mid-1920's depicting May and Phil Wirth (a famous bareback riding team) in a lithographed photographic image printed in a sepia-toned ink, an orange component in the ink was solubilized in the wash water. This occurred even though careful solubility tests had been performed prior to immersion. Conservators must approach these types of images with extreme caution. Another example of water soluble inks are brilliant red inks used around the turn of the century. In another treatment of a Ringling Bros. poster from circa 1904 depicting a grand Imra Kiralfy Spectacle, careful solubility testing of inks before aqueous immersion was carried out with no sign of solubility. Washing of the poster also proceeded with no signs of solubility. The poster, after washing, was dried between spun polyester webbing and blotter paper under glass and weights. After drying, and upon removal from the polyester and blotter papers, there was a red stain in the polyester corresponding directly to the red inked areas of the image. Even though the stain was slight, it was clearly visible on the polyester, yet there was no visual change in the poster itself, and absolutely no evidence of bleeding of the red ink in the poster. Conservators must approach aqueous immersion treatments with caution.
Figure 7. 1946 Cole Bros. Circus poster featuring a brown sepia-toned group portrait of the Cristiani Family, one of the greatest circus acts of all time. Brown sepia-toned inks used in circus posters often contain water soluble dye components which conservators should be wary of when considering aqueous treatments. This is a rare complete version of this poster. The Cristiani Family only stayed with the show for a few weeks, after which the advance department still used the posters but cut off the lower portion containing the family's name. (Author's Collection)
The ways in which posters were used by the circus are unique in the history of advertising. In any circus, the coordination of all advertising was the responsibility of the general agent. Before the start of a circus tour, the general agent would draw up generalized lists of posters for use on a typical day. These lists would specify the sizes and quantities of each poster, plus date sheets and date tags. Lists would be drawn up based upon the size of a city or town, the radius of the surrounding area to be posted, and special circumstances, such as the need for extra posters in case a competing show was billing the same area. During the course of a circus season, the general agent would order lists of posters every other week or so to fulfill the advertising needs of the show.
In the earliest days of the circus, the general agent himself might go out ahead of the show to handle the advertising, including the posting of bills and posters. Later, more personnel were required, and a show might have a separate horse drawn wagon to carry a crew of people. By the time the circus turned to railroad transportation, a separate railroad car would go out ahead of the show as part of commercial train loads. Larger shows would use two, three or four advertising cars, usually arriving in towns a month, two weeks and one week before the show to carry out the saturation advertising. These, in the vocabulary of the circus, were "advance cars" or "bill cars" and any advertising personnel or promotion were known simply as the "advance".
The advance crew who worked with posters were divided into two distinct groups. The "billposters" were the individuals who actually pasted posters on the outsides of buildings, fences, etc., while the "lithographers" placed posters in windows, preferably store windows in downtown locations. Each one was given a stack of posters in the morning, called a "hod", along with specific routes to follow during the day. Billposters would primarily use large multiple sheet posters, while lithographers used mostly one-sheets, half-sheets, and panels. A crew had only one day in a town and surrounding area in which to hang their posters.
The advance carried one individual who was the designated paste maker. Again, flour paste, a type of wheat starch paste, was the adhesive of choice. It was prepared in the early morning using flour, water and blue vitriol (copper sulfate) as a pesticide. The ingredients were blended together and then were "blasted" with steam to make a paste of creamy consistency. Railroad advance cars had built-in boilers to provide the steam, otherwise the paste maker would have to find a dairy or laundry where he could get steam.
While the paste was prepared, the billposters gathered their hods and equipment including long handled paste brushes, buckets and ladders. The lithographers, meanwhile, would lay out stacks of posters and then form a line to pick posters one at a time off of the stacks. This was known as "circusing the posters", or mixing up the images, so that only a single roll of posters had to be carried, and each poster as it was pulled off the roll would be different. This saved valuable time, especially if a merchant was willing to have more than one poster placed in his window, or an empty store front was located. The lithographers then had to paste the date tags to each of the posters in their hod. Since it was left up to the individual, date tags could be applied pretty much in any condition, although most lithographers took a great deal of pride in their workmanship. Sometimes wrinkling or creasing would occur but this was ignored, since time was of the essence and the posters only had to get their message across for a few weeks at most.
During a day's work a single billposter could hang from 300 to 600 sheets covering up to 7,000 square feet of space. A few billposters gained the reputation of "thousand sheeters", those who were skilled and fast enough to post 1,000 sheets in one day. Billposters termed any stand of posters put up with paste, a "daub", whether it was a single sheet or the entire side of a building. The procedure for posting bills was pretty standardized amongst billposters. When George Gallo, a billposter with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, King Bros. Circus, and Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros., was once asked by Charles Philip Fox and Tom Parkinson, authors of Billers, Banners and Bombast: The Story of Circus Advertising, if there was a trick to posting sheets that would not peel off, his answer was straight to the point.
We would daub the hell out of it. It meant we would rub our paste into the wall first. Then put up the paper, again rubbing it in hard. Finally we would take clear water and splash it over the paper, rubbing it hard with our brushes. That damn stand won't peel or flag for sure. Trouble is we didn't always have the time to do this, or sometimes we couldn't spare the water... But today (1974) most billposters use Bloety's Paste Flour made in England. It is great stuff only you have to let it sit for two hours before you use it. And it doesn't take steam to cook it. Just add the drypowder to water and stir.
Roy Long, boss billposter for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey related a variation on the standard practice and the materials used, again in the Fox and Parkinson text.
As car manager for Ringling, Babe Boudinot, loved those country routes and wanted us to put up plenty of sheets. He was forever telling the men not to just frame the paper. 'Iron it, iron it, rub it in, rub it in.' He was telling them to paste the entire space, not just around the edge of a six-sheet with an X of paste in the middle; this was framing the poster. It was faster but the paper would not last as long as if you ironed it on.
If we were having a good day and getting lots of good daubs we sometimes ran out of paste. There wasn't time to go back to the car so we bought flour, added water and stirred up our own mixture. We had to add lye, which would cook the mixture so it was usable. But we had to be very careful not to rub this paste too hard on the surface of the poster as it would make the inks run.
There was an unwritten code that billposters would get permission before hanging their posters, and they were always armed with plenty of free show tickets to persuade property owners. Of course, if a property owner could not be contacted for a desirable location, a daub might still appear. Billposters were held accountable for all of their sheets, and most were required to file daily detailed reports with locations of where their posters had been placed. Any billposter who might "charley" some posters, or ditch them, would not remain employed very long.
Lithographers utilized a completely different hanging method for installing their posters. They actually used paper hinges with water soluble glue or gum adhesives, called "stickers", similar to postage stamps. Show printers supplied stickers with poster orders, and many even printed special stickers with the show title or decoration on them. These stickers may be used for identification purposes, thus they contain important historical information which must be preserved during conservation treatments. A good example from my own collection is a Shrine Circus poster from the 1940's. The Shrine Circus is a generic title used by Shrine organizations for their sponsored circuses over the past 80 years. In such examples, identification of the actual circus involved can be difficult. Stickers on the poster, however, have the Sparks Circus title, identifying it as one used by a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. sponsored indoor circus of the late 1940's.
A lithographer would attach stickers at the top reverse of the poster with the upper adhesive side facing the window into which the poster was to be attached. With the adhesive already moistened, the lithographer would manipulate the poster into position in the window using two 6 foot long sticks. Once placed, the sticks were then used to rub the stickers insuring good adhesion to the glass pane. In their book, Billers, Banners and Bombast: The Story of Circus Advertising, Fox and Parkinson quote Sid Foote, who joined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1953 as a lithographer. He explains the procedure he learned.
An old-timer named Eddie Jackson taught me the ropes. He explained the importance of getting grime, oil film, or dust off glass where you will rub in your stickers; otherwise they just won't hold. Get the stickers on the poster square. Two for a half-sheet, and three for a one-sheet. Hang the posters square with the window frame so from the outside they look neat. Eddie said he never put the stickers on the posters until the store owner said it was okay to hang. If you had stickers on posters ahead of time and got caught in the rain, you would have a mess.
Lithographers also had to keep detailed records of the posters they used, and this was maintained in the process of getting permission to hang them. All shows had brief printed lithograph contracts, usually about the size of a large ticket. The lithographers had to get shop owners to sign the simple agreement that they would keep the posters up until circus day. In exchange, the owner would get free circus tickets. If the posters were not up on circus day when an inspector from the show stopped by, the owner relinquished his right to free tickets. Of course, every circus was shrewdly aware that only about half of the free tickets would ever be claimed.
By the 1950's, billposters and lithographers became unionized, and any poster put up received a Billposter's Union Stamp. Of course, these markings are historically important and must be preserved during conservation treatments.
With the advent of modern media, especially radio and television, the use of circus posters began to decline. By the 1940's, with the development of offset lithography and other photo mechanical reproduction processes, circus posters lost some of their remarkable artistic quality. Eventually, classic stone lithographic poster images were photographed to be mechanically reproduced. 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.
Luckily for those who still appreciate the circus poster as a unique example of American graphic art, there has been a resurgence in the use of posters by the American circus. Today, one of the largest circus poster printing firms is Graphics 2000, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Using the most modern of off-set printing techniques incorporating computer generated graphics, outstanding photography, as well as traditional images, this company produces some of the most beautiful posters available today, and boasts many of this country's largest circuses as its clients.
The history of the American circus poster is as unique and colorful as the attractions they have represented over the past two hundred years. With a better understanding of this history, including manufacturing procedures, poster components, and how posters were originally used, conservators can design and carry out treatments that insure the longevity of existing circus posters while maintaining their valuable historic and artistic integrity.
American Heritage Magazine. Great Days of the Circus. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1962.
Chindahl, George L. A History of the Circus in America. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd.,1959.
Culhane, John. The American Circus. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1990.
Durant, John, and Alice Durant. Pictorial History of the American Circus. Cranbury, NJ: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1957.
Fox, Charles Philip, ed. American Circus Posters in Full Color. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1978.
Fox, Charles Philip, and Tom Parkinson. Billers, Banners and Bombast: The Story of Circus Advertising. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Co., 1985.
Fox, Charles Philip, and Tom Parkinson. The Circus in America. Waukesha, WI: Country Beautiful, 1969.
Haenlein, Carl-Albrecht, and Wolfgang Till, editors. Menschen, Tiere, Sensationen: Zirkusplakate 1880-1930 (Humans, Animals, Sensations: Circus Posters 1880-1930). Hannover, Germany: Kestner-Gesellschaft, 1978.
Hoh, La Vahn G., and William H. Rough. Step Right Up! The Adventure of Circus in America. Whitehall, VA: Betterway Publications, Inc., 1970.
Homenaje Al Circo (Homage to the Circus). Madrid,, Spain: Banco de Bilbao, 1986.
Horsman, Paul. Private Correspondence. Mr. Horsman, a noted circus historian, once owned a private circus museum and currently is a circus memorabilia dealer.
Hubler, Richard. The Cristianis. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1966.
Kelley, F. Beverly. It Was Better Than Work. Gerald, MO: The Patrice Press, 1982.
Kirk, Rhina. Circus Heroes and Heroines. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, Inc., 1972.
Markschiess-van Trix, J., and Bernhard Nowak, (translated from the German by Charles Dukes). Circus People and Posters. German Democratic Republic: Edition Leipzig, 1977.
Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.
Plowden, Gene. Circus Press Agent: The Life and Times of Roland Butler. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1984.
Rennert, Jack. 100 Years of Circus Posters. New York: Darien House, Inc., 1974.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Daily Program and Magazine, Season of 1928. Tegge.
Timothy Noel. Private Correspondence. Mr. Tegge is a professional circus performer and circus historian, and maintains one of the largest private collections of circus posters in the U.S.
Acknowledgement is made to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc., for permission to reproduce certain circus posters which are copyright material owned by them. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey TM and The Greatest Show on Earth TM are registered trademarks of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.