You have to wonder if in our modern world of technological thrills, YouTube, IMAX cinema, rock concerts and Blue Ray, the old fashioned circus has anything left to compete with. In its heyday during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the circus was the most popular theatrical entertainment in America and in those cities that hosted one or more of the numerous traveling circuses, Circus Day was next to the 4th of July in its magical, transforming effects on a city. And on that stupendous day the circus parade, which few missed, was an event only a little less anticipated than the show under the big top.
Before the circus arrived in town the publicity machine had been long at work assuring that everyone for miles around couldn’t fail to hear about the fantastic spectacles and giant beasts, the clowns and bearded lady on their way to town. This was accomplished by way of circus posters printed in the thousands and plastered on building walls, signboards and vehicles in a wide swath along the circus route. There were dozens of artists working to create these posters and several printing companies hired to supply the large number of necessary copies, but the biggest of all was The Strobridge Lithographing Company of Cincinnati.
The execution of a design and the printing of a circus poster was a collaboration between artists and designers who drew the images on the plates and the craftsmen operating the presses. Strobridge hired skilled artists and lithographers by the score, many who have gone unrecognized since most of the posters carry only the corporate name of Strobridge & Company. Despite their anonymity, the artists at Strobridge learned and trained under the best possible conditions in a company that was no less than a cradle of their art. It was Strobridge that effected the big change in circus posters, with larger and more colorful posters of fewer words. Earlier the posters used mostly words with only small pictures to advertise the circus wonders; Dan Rice’s Great Show used a total of 757 words and no pictures on only one poster advertising one of his shows in 1860.
Though Strobridge made the move to fewer words on circus posters, with help from the Strobridge artists the circus became both famous and infamous for verbal swagger. Their posters provided what were almost alphabetic primers: astonishing, bewildering, colossal, death-defying, extraordinary, unparalleled, youthful, hurricane horsemanship, jeweled, million-dollar, perilous and weird. One poster even went so far as to turn “Eskimo” into “Esquimaux.” The frippery of language in circus posters eventually gave way to a leaner style, to captions or only a title. But the scarcity of words served to increase their impact. Soon people were seeing posters of a huge elephant or rhinoceros captioned with only, “Ringling Brothers.” Americans were learning to find the meaning in brevity. Strobridge was among the first to realize that we live in a visual world.
Black Venus an 1881 poster Strobridge by Matt Morgan for Kiralfy Bros. Grand Production
Equestrienne and Clown, 1908 Strobridge poster by Edward Henry Potthast; Barnum & Bailey
By the Hair of Their Heads, 1917 poster; artist unknown, for Barnum & Bailey
The Children’s Favorite Clown, a 1918 poster; artist unknown, for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Galaxy of Clowns, 1919; artist unknown, for Sells-Floto Circus
Jiu Jitsu Expert Princess Nyaskis, 1923; artist unknown, for Sells-Floto Circus
The pictures above are from the book, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company, a publication of the Cincinnati Art Museum and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.