The following is a guest post by Jan Grenci, Reference Specialist for Posters, and Shaunette Payne, Processing Technician, Prints & Photographs Division.
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, please direct your attention to the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, and join us in celebrating the recent digitizing of the Library’s circus posters! The Circus Poster Collection includes more than 450 items representing circus companies such as P.T. Barnum, Barnum and Bailey, Ringling Brothers, Sells Brothers, Hagenbeck, Forepaugh, and Robinson.
The posters range in size from one sheet (27 x 40 inches) to billboard size. Advances in scanning technology have made it possible for the multi-sheet posters, some between 15 and 21 feet long, to be scanned and made available online for the first time. Oversize posters were scanned in sections, with some sections requiring two overlapping scans.
Staff members then skillfully stitched the sections together digitally to reproduce the entire poster. One Barnum & Bailey poster, America’s Great Naval Victory at Santiago, which measures roughly 9 feet by 21 feet, took 20 scans to capture the entire poster.
Many posters from Barnum and Bailey’s 1900 tour of Germany are now available, including the two action-filled ones below.
Although the majority of posters in the collection are lithographs or offset lithographs, and were printed in the 1890’s, there are a number of earlier woodcuts. This poster, from 1872, is an example of a stock poster. These posters included images typical to most circuses, and were printed with no text. By not being printed for a specific company, the poster could be used by any circus.
Rodeo and carnival posters were also scanned, including this festive carousel image.
While you would expect to find posters full of clowns, acrobats, and all kinds of animals in the collection, you may be surprised to see this lovely rendering of the old Madison Square Garden:
The collection also includes posters for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This poster from 1896 shows Buffalo Bill alongside another famous man on horseback, Napoleon. Between the two figures sits artist Rosa Bonheur, who painted a portrait of Buffalo Bill in 1889:
The scanning and cataloging of the posters was quite a feat–though rest assured, not as death-defying as some of the acts the posters commemorate! Please take some time to enjoy a digital journey to the Big Top.
- View items from the Circus Poster Collection relating to circuses, rodeos, and carnivals.
- Take a peek behind the scenes at Shaunette Payne’s work on the circus posters and other collections in our earlier blog post, “Behind the Scenes: A Technical Perspective.”
- Not had enough of the circus (even minus the peanuts and popcorn)? Revisit a post that commemorated the closing of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus put on its last show: “Fun for Children of All Ages: Circus Posters.”
- Curious about lithography and other printing technologies? Have a look at our Printmaking Processes: a Webliography.
- Read about the Federal Theatre Project’s involvement with circus performances in the online exhibition, “Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939.”