The Greatest Show on Earth: How Circuses Reused Effective Design
In the summer heat, it’s hard to imagine performing acrobatic feats and superhuman demonstrations. At Swann we get our exercise vicariously by investigating some of the circus posters from our August 3 Vintage Posters auction.
Lot 335: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, designer unknown, 1932. Estimate $700 to $1,000.
In the days before radio and television, posters were a circus’s sole form of advertisement. Because they might only be in a town for a single day, a troupe could not rely on brand recognition the way a permanent institution might. Circuses outsourced the design and manufacture of their posters to printing houses located throughout the mid-Atlantic. A printing house could use the same lithograph print numerous times for any number of companies. The images featured generic tricks and animals, so often the same stock image would be used by two different troupes simultaneously, each having added their own identifying details such as names of performers and the title of the circus.
Lot 332: The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, designer unknown, 1896. Estimate $1,200 to $1,800.
For example, The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth is based on a black and white lithograph from 1890, currently housed at the Library of Congress. The compelling image could be endlessly customized by changing the color of the horses, the outfits of the riders, or the background.
A circus commissioned a specialty poster if they needed to promote an act or performer unique to their troupe. These often featured lifelike portraits of the performers and acts and were more expensive to produce. Once the circus finished, the printing house could edit and reuse the image. For example, Sells-Floto Circus / Rose Millette, 1932, was originally intended to promote another performer, May Wirth, in 1913. The image of May Wirth and, later, Rose Millette, was so iconic at the time that it continued to be used through the 1960s.
Lot 352: Sells-Floto Circus / Rose Millette, designer unknown, 1932. Estimate $700 to $1,000.
As radio and television gained traction, it became less important to have sensational new posters, and circus companies instead emphasized the traditional and familiar aspects of the circus. For more vintage posters, step right up to our full catalogue.