“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”!
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.”
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!
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.
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:
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:
- View more than 100 digitized early circus posters in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- See circus posters displayed where they might catch the eye of the public, including pasted on the sides of barns, on billboards and hung in shop windows in photos from the Farm Security Administration Collection.
- Enjoy colorful photos related to the circus in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.