Step Right Up! Circus Posters for Your Viewing Pleasure

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 John Robinson Largest, Most Complete Menagerie on Earth. Poster, 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54939

The John Robinson Largest, Most Complete Menagerie on Earth. Poster, 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54939

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.

Circus poster being scanned on large-format scanner in Prints and Photographs Division, 2018. Photo by Melissa Lindberg.

Circus poster being scanned on large-format scanner in Prints and Photographs Division, 2018. Photo by Melissa Lindberg.

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.

The Barnum and Bailey's greatest show on earth. America's great naval victory at Santiago. The destruction of the Spanish fleet ... . Poster, copyrighted 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55196

The Barnum and Bailey’s greatest show on earth. America’s great naval victory at Santiago. The destruction of the Spanish fleet … . Poster, copyrighted 1898. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55196

Many posters from Barnum and Bailey’s 1900 tour of Germany are now available, including the two action-filled ones below.

Die Barnum & Bailey groesste schaustellung der welt Wundervoll und Lächerlich Ballspielende Hunde... Poster by Strobridge & Co,, copyrighted 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp

Die Barnum & Bailey groesste schaustellung der welt Wundervoll und Lächerlich Ballspielende Hunde… Poster by Strobridge & Co,, copyrighted 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54852

Die Barnum & Bailey groesste schaustellung der welt [...]. Poster, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55201

Die Barnum & Bailey groesste schaustellung der welt […]. Poster, 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55201

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.

Acrobatic acts on horseback. Poster, copyrighted 1872. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55145

Acrobatic acts on horseback. Poster, copyrighted 1872. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55145

Rodeo and carnival posters were also scanned, including this festive carousel image.

C.W. Parker ... Steam riding gallery ... "Special" double cylinder engine ... Military band organ. Poster, between 1910 and 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54743

C.W. Parker … Steam riding gallery … “Special” double cylinder engine … Military band organ. Poster, between 1910 and 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54743

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:

Forepaugh and Sells Brothers great shows consolidated. Madison Square Garden, New York... Poster, copyrighted 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54927

Forepaugh and Sells Brothers great shows consolidated. Madison Square Garden, New York… Poster, copyrighted 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54927

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:

Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World / Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y. Poster, copyrighted 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54868

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World / Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y. Poster, copyrighted 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54868

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.

Elevated view of carnival and two women riding high in swings. Poster, copyrighted 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54744

Elevated view of carnival and two women riding high in swings. Poster, copyrighted 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54744

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