Published: June 17, 2011
Kristin L. Spangenberg is quick to say she is an art historian, not a circus historian, but after spending about three decades poring over the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection of circus posters, she has absorbed an “amazing” amount of circus history.
Newly arrived at the museum as a curator in the early 1970s, she one day came across a trove of 1,000 color lithographic posters in the museum library †all for circuses. The posters were all printed by the Strobridge Lithographing Company of Cincinnati and had never even been cataloged to the permanent collection.
Her efforts to organize, catalog and conserve these posters that provide a “slice of life” of outdoor advertising and the circus in the late 1800s are now realized in the exhibition “The Amazing American Circus Poster,” on view through July 10. Jointly organized by co-curators Spangenberg and Deborah W. Walk of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., the exhibit will travel to Florida September 17⁊anuary 29.
“The circus was one of the first forms of mass culture that provided a shared experience to people all across the nation,” the curators write in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. “The vivid images and persuasive words of the circus posters describe the uniquely American combination of sideshow, menagerie and Big Top performance.”
The exhibition features 80 circus posters Strobridge created for the many traveling circuses that crisscrossed the country between 1878 and 1939 †the “Golden Age” of the American circus. Cincinnati was a hub for the printing industry, and Strobridge quickly became unrivaled among peers for its circus posters that were colorful, bore striking graphics with grandiose wording, and were of the highest print quality. Several of the wealthiest circuses in the country, including Barnum & Bailey, used Strobridge for their printing.
The posters had to work hard in a short time. Their job was to not only sell the name of the circus (when competing circuses might come to the same town), but also provide a day and date and a feature of the circus (be it tigers, equestrian acts, clowns or a modern wonder of the world).
Made to withstand weeks of outdoor display in rain and withering sun, Strobridge posters were printed on high-quality paper and used durable inks. To be sure that its bright red ink did not turn into a mousy brown, Strobridge contracted with a Cincinnati firm, Ault & Wiborg, to create a proprietary pigment, aptly named “Strobridge Red.”
Besides Strobridge’s connections to Cincinnati, several posters in the exhibition are featured from the Sells Brothers Circus, which has Buckeye roots as well. The four Sells brothers set up their first circus in Columbus, Ohio, in 1871. The circus toured for more than three decades.
Among the most iconic and graphic posters in the exhibition are those featuring a circus’s stock and trade †animals. A standout is the 1882 poster of two hippopotami, shown up-close in the foreground, with open mouths, teeth and jaws exposed, for the Sells Brothers circus.
Tigers are de rigueur for any circus, of course, and a 1928 poster of a leaping tiger for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows features a tiger in an aggressive leaping stance, claws and teeth bared, aptly demonstrating the power and ferocity of the tiger.
Of the many exhibitions Spangenberg has curated for the museum over the years, she finds it interesting to note that this is the one exhibition that caused people to come up to her in the months before it opened and say, “I can’t wait for your circus [show].” For many, it brings back pleasant memories †and, for some, takes one back to when “Circus Day” meant a day off from school to watch the circus arrive in town and lead a downtown parade.
The exhibition surveys American circuses through the medium of the circus posters and its influences on American culture. “The expansion of the American circus parallels the nation’s great economic expansion and transformation,” says Walk in her catalog essay on circus showmen. “Just as there were barons of industry and finance, there were the circus impresarios, who were able to make what was deemed one of the most ‘uncertain of all business enterprises’ profitable,” noting that these “circus kings” ably used mass advertising techniques, such as lithographic posters, to sell tickets and fill their tents.
In the era before direct mail and Internet marketing, circus promoters had an advance team that would travel ahead of the circus and “paper” the towns where the circus would soon visit with circus posters as advertising. Posters, commonly known as bills (short for handbills), were affixed to walls, and smaller posters were placed in shop windows in exchange for free tickets for the shopkeeper, provided the posters were still there on opening day. Ephemeral in nature, few of these posters survived.
Many of the posters in the Cincinnati museum’s collection came from Strobridge. Andrew Donaldson Jr, the former manager and vice president of the Strobridge Lithographing Company, made sure that as the company was being sold to H.S. Crocker in 1960 that four display albums of sample posters from the early 1880s were donated to the museum.
While the bulk of the exhibition hails from the museum’s collection, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art loaned pieces, including several standouts from Howard Tibbals, whose collection of circus posters is a promised gift to the Ringling Museum. “He is a significant lender to the exhibition,” Spangenberg said, noting that she and Walk had more than 1,500 poster designs to choose from in curating this exhibition. The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., lent a poster called “A Child’s Dream,” produced during Barnum & Bailey’s six-year European tour, 1897‱902, that shows a sleeping child encircled by visions of circus performers and animals.
The largest poster in the exhibition comes from the Tibbals collection and is a 12-sheet survivor that was found in 2007 on the side of a building being renovated in Vincent, Iowa. The poster advertises the “amazing feats” of Ernest Clarke, who is noted for being the first circus performer to execute a triple somersault with twists.
The earliest poster on view is a one-sheet from 1879 for the Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie in Consolidation with the Cooper, Bailey & Co.’s Great International Allied Shows promoting “Our Electric Light,” a modern marvel in its day.
Most circus posters were unsigned and a team effort, particularly for multiple-sheet posters. While Nelson Strobridge, who followed his father Hines as president in 1909, credited artist Harry Ogden for about 98 percent of its designs in a 50-year period, the firm began commissioning individual artists on occasion to design an entire poster in the early Twentieth Century.
The most famous example has to be the above-mentioned “Leaping Tiger” by illustrator Charles Livingston Bull for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows in 1914. Bull is renowned for this poster, which is among quintessential images of the circus and was often copied. His design was used continuously, in varying sizes, through 1928.
Impressionist painter Edward Henry Potthast is better known for beachscapes and scenes of people at leisure, but the Cincinnati native also apprenticed with a local printing firm for six years and was hired by Strobridge in 1879 as an artist. A poster he designed in 1895 was first used for Barnum & Bailey’s European tour from 1897 to 1902. The example in the exhibition dates to the 1898 season.
“With the Edward Potthast-designed poster, I was a ‘doubting Thomas’ for many years until I found an article [dated] 1892 or 1895, published during his lifetime, which identified that poster with him,” Spangenberg said.
Potthast’s poster has a simple and bold design, with strong graphics reading “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth.” An equestrienne is shown atop her horse, crop in hand, while a white-faced clown watches. The imagery is classic circus fare, and Potthast uses basic elements in Barnum & Bailey posters while suggesting a performance under the Big Top.
“The dash, verve and brilliant background color suggest that during his second trip abroad, Potthast studied the design, color and liberal sexuality of Jules Chéret’s posters, the ‘Chérettes’ that dazzled Belle Epoque Paris,” Spangenberg wrote in her catalog essay.
The costs of researching and mounting such an exhibition and a major publication were prohibitive (the circus posters all had to be custom framed, owing to differences in sheet sizes), and the National Endowment of Humanities came through with three separate grants totaling nearly $400,000 beginning with a planning grant in 2006.
The 264-page softbound catalog, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company , contains color illustrations of all 80 posters in the exhibit along with fascinating information. Essays provide a rich history and timeline of the circus industry from its promoters to the territories circuses covered and how names changed as circus companies were sold or merged with other companies. From “The Circus Clown as Social Commentator” to “A Picture Is Worth 757 Words: Circus & Culture, Language and Perception,” the essays serve as a map to a long-lost world and reawaken the sense of wonder and awe early circuses inspired in audiences.
The Cincinnati Art Museum is at 953 Eden Park Drive. For information, 513-639-2995 or www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org .
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