We recently went to the Art Museum to see the current exhibition on circus posters from the Strobridge Lithographing Company. It was wonderful. I can’t recall a more enjoyable art outing in a long time. Cincinnati, it turns out, was one of the largest commercial printing centers in the country in the early twentieth century, next to only New York and Boston, and Strobridge was the world’s greatest producer of circus posters. The artwork was created from hand-drawn images on blue Bavarian limestone, which was then etched with ink and water to produce glorious colored pictures. The Strobridge plant, located on Canal St. (now Central Parkway) in Over-the-Rhine operated from 1847 to 1960. It burned down in 1887, but albums of poster samples were kept in the company’s New York office and were donated to the Art Museum’s library 35 years ago. The current exhibit of 80 posters from 1879 to 1938 was put together from over 700 posters owned by the museum, plus contributions from the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and a private collector. The exhibit gives a rich and interesting account of the history of the American circus, from P.T. Barnum’s 19th century galas to the early years of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in the 1930’s. The circus was the most important form of mass media entertainment throughout this period. They were much bigger than contemporary circuses, more like a Worlds’ Fair exposition with mile-long trains and multiple tents and kinds of exhibits. Here’s a sample of the posters that we saw.
Barnum acquired Jumbo from the London Zoological Society in 1882 for the hefty sum of $10,000, and the big guy was a major attraction. When we next order a Jumbo sundae at the ice cream parlor, now we’ll know where the word came from.
Jumbo was tragically killed by a train in 1885, but Barnum, ever the astute showman, continued his legacy by exhibiting his skeleton.
Gargantua is one of my favorite posters. He was the lead attraction of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus from 1938 to 1949. Billed as weighing 525 pounds and possessing the strength of 27 men, his popularity drew in part upon the blockbuster movie King Kong from 1933.
Circuses traveled the country during an era when zoos were far less common, and they offered many Americans their sole exposure to wild and exotic species. I think the tiger poster is thrilling – scary, on the one hand; handsome and majestic, on the other.
Rose Matilda Richter, professionally named Zazel, began her circus career at age 4. She was shot from a cannon over a distance of 97 feet, truly a “death-defying” act. For risking her life, Zazel was paid the sizeable salary of $300 a week.
Bicycles and automobiles were incorporated into stunts to heighten their suspense and excitement. Women drove the autos in the “Thrilling Dip of Death.”
The first circus trapeze act was performed in 1859, before anyone foresaw that it would become the focal point of the three-ring circus. In 1906 Ernest Clark became the first circus performer to do the triple somersault. It’s said he did quadruple somersaults in practice.
The “freak show” featured people with physical or mental anomalies and people from foreign cultures: giants, dwarfs, individuals lacking arms or legs, extremely heavy or thin people, conjoined twins, sword swallowers, Hindus, etc. Millie Christine actually did have a single body and spinal column along with her four arms, four legs, and two heads.
Nearly all the circus performers before the 1890’s were men, but women had become much more frequent in the center ring by the turn of the century. Miss Katie Sandwina was 6 feet 1 inches tall and “the strongest woman that ever lived”.
Circuses offered new technology among their many wonders. Ads for the steam air ship promised airborne flights, but, in fact, the ship merely flapped its wings and sat on the ground.
The circuses made great use of spectacles, usually incorporating a ballet, a march, and one or more battle scenes. Many performances were ended by a chariot race around the tent’s Hippodrome track. This poster is from 1916.
Here is another of my favorites – a young girl’s dreams filled with wonderful memories of the circus. Barnum and Bailey used this poster on their European tour from 1897 to 1902.
I’ve gone to see the circus posters twice and plan to go again. It brings to life the amazing wonders of one’s childhood. If anybody’s near Cincinnati, we encourage them to take in this super-duper show (which runs till July 20, then moves on to Sarasota, FL).
Sources: Cincy Art Museum website; Google Images
-Gayle C-L (4-11): Amazing Facts......very cool....)