Fun for Children of All Ages: Circus Posters

“The Greatest Show on Earth” closed up shop this past Sunday, May 21, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus put on its last show. “The Greatest Show on Earth” moniker is a good example of the type of hyperbole circuses have always used in their advertising to lure visitors. The Prints and Photographs Division’s over 400 circus posters, most dating to the turn of the 20th century, describe and display the marvels of the early circus with far more flair than I ever could. Take for example this elaborate 1912 Ringling Bros. poster for: “An inspiring, vivid picture of bewildering splendor and patriotic zeal”!

Ringling Bros. tremendous 1200 character spectacle Joan of Arc--An inspiring, vivid picture ... the magnificent coronation of Charles VII. Poster (chromolithograph) copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12513

Ringling Bros. tremendous 1200 character spectacle Joan of Arc–An inspiring, vivid picture … the magnificent coronation of Charles VII. Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.12513

Or this Barnum & Bailey poster for The World-Famous Silbons, “The Masterly Monarchs of the Air in a Series of Most Difficult, Ingenious and Startling Aerial Feats” as part of “The World’s Largest, Grandest, Best Amusement Institution.”

The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth The world's largest, grandest, best amusement institution. Poster (chromolithograph) copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g09668

The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth The world’s largest, grandest, best amusement institution. Poster (chromolithograph) copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g09668

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were by no means the only proprietors of grand productions and death-defying or mind-blowing tricks, as numerous other circuses entertained audiences around the country. Some of the acts advertised would not suit the sensibilities of a 21st century audience, while others seem equally marvelous today, but all offer a flash of insight into what sold tickets a century ago!

Another merged company, the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers circus, laid claim to being “America’s Greatest Shows Consolidated” as well as to the act of Madame Yucca, “The Female Hercules,  The Strongest Woman on Earth. Handsome, Modest and Genteel, in the Costume of the Parlor She Performs Feats of Strength Never Attempted by Any Other Man or Woman on Earth.” The poster below offers a sneak peek into every feat she will attempt!

The Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers--America's greatest shows consolidated--Madame Yucca, the female Hercules, the strongest woman on Earth [...] Poster copyrighted by the Courier Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10077

The Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers–America’s greatest shows consolidated–Madame Yucca, the female Hercules, the strongest woman on Earth […] Poster copyrighted by the Courier Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10077

Let’s not overlook The Great Wallace Shows, who purport to have “Positively the Most Mystifying, Amazing and Sensational Act Ever Placed in a Circus Ring”, which seems to entail a Mlle. Norada French climbing in a ball and spiraling down a precarious ramp.

The great Wallace shows: colossal 3 ring circus, 2 elevated stages. Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g13573

The great Wallace shows: colossal 3 ring circus, 2 elevated stages. Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g13573

Be sure to take your time with this poster and study the high resolution digital file to see all the dozens of characters in The Great Coney Island Water Carnival from Barnum & Bailey:

The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth The Great Coney Island Water Carnival. Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/03793

The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth The Great Coney Island Water Carnival. Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/03793

But wait, there is so much more! Get some popcorn and enjoy a seat under the big top of old through the rest of this selection of colorful, bombastic, shocking, exciting and sometimes amusing circus posters:

Forepaugh & Sells Brothers enormous shows united. The 7 wild wheel whirl wonders. The 7 Gaynells ... Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho Co., 1902. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02625

Forepaugh & Sells Brothers enormous shows united. The 7 wild wheel whirl wonders. The 7 Gaynells … Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho Co., 1902. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02625

The great Forepaugh & Sells Brothers shows combined. Phenomenal acts of contortion. Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10078

The great Forepaugh & Sells Brothers shows combined. Phenomenal acts of contortion. Poster copyrighted by The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10078

The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth--Troupe of very remarkable trained pigs. Poster by The Strobridge Litho Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02611

The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth–Troupe of very remarkable trained pigs. Poster by The Strobridge Litho Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02611

Sells Floto Circus. M'lle Beeson, a marvelous high wire Venus. Poster copyrighted by Sells Floto Show Co., 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g09672

Sells Floto Circus. M’lle Beeson, a marvelous high wire Venus. Poster copyrighted by Sells Floto Show Co., 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g09672

The Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers. America's shows consolidated. Representative riders of every class and country ... Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho Co., 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02988

The Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers. America’s shows consolidated. Representative riders of every class and country … Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho Co., 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02988

The Great Wallace shows : colossal 3 ring circus, 2 elevated stages. Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g13545

The Great Wallace shows : colossal 3 ring circus, 2 elevated stages. Poster copyrighted by Courier Litho. Co., 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g13545

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