Monday, October 13, 2014

Ladeez and Gentlemen! Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth


QUESTION: When I was a kid, I loved going to the circus with my parents each Spring. There was something exciting and foreign about it—the unusual animals and the performers who seemed to come from all over the world. A while back, I purchased an old circus poster from the Barnum and Bailey Circus and have it hanging on the wall in my den. But I know nothing about it. A friend told me the U.S. Post Office recently issued a new set of stamps featuring circus posters. My interest has been rekindled all over again. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: Circus promoters referred to circus posters as "bills" from the early use of handbills, paper, or later, "lithos", whether printers produced them using lithography or not.

Circus owners recognized the notion that "a picture is worth a thousand words." So they incorporated illustrations, which early on 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, thus originating the concept of "stock" posters. Circuses produced early show posters in mass, using a single design, often with only a printed title. Other information, such as dates and locations would be handwritten or stamped with ink by circus advance men.

By the 1860's more circus owners embraced the poster as their main means of promotion. And by 1880, the Golden Age of the circus poster had begun.
   
The actual production of circus posters from idea to finished product was a team effort. Some of the most talented artists of the day designed circus posters, but most didn't sign their work. In fact, most printing companies created circus posters as production art--much like the "original oil paintings" available at Airport Hotel Sales. Any number of artists might work on the overall design of a poster. Often, specific artists specialized in certain subjects. For example, a single artist might specialize in lettering while another specialized in horses, and yet another in performer portraits.

Circus posters can be divided into two categories—stock or specialty. Stock posters, generic designs that could be used by any circus, included images of clowns, wild animals, performers, etc.. Show printers would print large runs of stock designs and store them, making them the most inexpensive. Circus owners could pick these out of catalogs and have their show's  title printed on them. It wasn't uncommon for more than one circus to use the same poster designs in the same season. Printed stock posters might remain in storage for years until a printer sold them to a circus to be used. Often posters used during a specific year had actually been printed decades before.

The dimensions of circus posters are important in dating them. Originally, printers based the sizes of posters on the size of their printing press beds, which varied widely. Eventually, printers standardized a unit of measure called a "sheet"at 28" by 42", basing these dimensions on the dimensions of a lithographic stone a single man could handle or carry.

The most common were "one-sheets," followed by "half-sheets" measuring 28"x  21".  "Flats" had a horizontal format, while "uprights" had a vertical orientation. Printers also produced various multiple sheets, with corresponding multiple dimensions. They produced larger multiples in rare instances, including 100-sheet posters and larger. Printers determined the kind of bill by the combinations of sheets.

Even though printers produced circus posters cheaply by the thousands, they used high quality medium weight woven paper, usually bleached to a bright white color, even though posters were printed in volume and used briefly. Also, printers used oil-based inks for printing circus posters because they were often hung outside.

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. 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.

Probably the greatest image ever produced for 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’s still in use 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, doesn’t bear his signature.

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 Famous Cole 3 Ring Circus poster with black type on yellow stock for $30. At the high end might be a rare Cole Bros. Circus from the Erie Litho. & Ptg Co., of Erie, Pennsylvania, bearing the title, “Cole Bros. Circus Presents Quarter- Million Pound Act of Performing Elephants–The Most Colossal Train Animals Display Ever Presented” for $375.

Although circuses continue to thrill youngsters, much of the promotion is now done using T.V. and radio ads and discount coupons handed out in supermarkets. The days of posters plastered on the sides of buildings are long gone.