When the circus came to town: a brief history of the circus poster

June 17, 2014

Poster for Barnum and Bailey Circus, ca. 1900Once upon a time, before computers, televisions and radio, the sight of advance men, with their buckets and brushes and carefully folded papers, drew the townsfolk’s curiosity. As the scent of flour mixed with water rose, those papers were unfolded, pasted, and awed at by young and old alike. The circus was coming to town.

With shows lasting only one day before moving on, the circus poster had to be a hard sell: the company’s name in big red lettering splashed across the top, the vibrant image of who or what would be performing in the centre and the date of the show along the bottom.  These posters, which flooded towns just a few weeks before the circus rolled in, were so striking and pervasive, just a glimpse of those heavy uppercase letters can still bring forth memories of acrobats, clowns, big tops and ringmasters.

A brief history of the circus

The roots of the circus can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when troubadours and tumblers would perform for the public. By the 18th century, Europe brought about the more traditional circus, with military equestrian performances and daring acrobatic feats, with intermissions filled by clown antics.

The first full-fledged circus arrived on American soil in 1793 with Scottish equestrian John Bill Ricketts, who later brought his show to Montreal for the first ever circus performance in Canada in 1797. The show poster, however, can be traced back to 1786 when American Thomas  Poole used “bills” to advertise his own equestrian act. These and other posters of the 18th century and first half of the 19th century were printed by letterpress and employed mahogany-wood engravings or woodcuts for the images. To keep costs down, printers created stock posters with generic images, such as clowns or animals – that any circus could use. The name of the circus company and the date of its appearance would then be stamped on, handwritten or affixed as a date sheet. More established circuses would order specialty posters, with images of their featured performers or big-name acts to draw the crowds.  

A giant leap in circus poster production

New inventions helped lower the costs of poster production – namely,  pine blocks for mahogany ones and steam-powered printing presses – but it was the invention of lithography by German Alois Senefelder in 1798 (and embraced by the late 1800s) that brought about the greatest change and ushered in the circus poster’s golden age. The application of lithography is based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. Senefelder created a “grease” crayon made of wax, soap and lampblack that he then wrote with on a limestone plate. The non-image area was dampened with water so that when the oil-based ink was rolled on, it would only adhere to the crayon. A paper was then laid onto the limestone block and pressed.

Highly skilled teamwork

Designing a
gle circus poster was a team effort. On board were artists who specialized in lettering, portraits, animals, black outlines and colour defining, for instance. Because posters could require multiple sheets – and therefore multiple plates – it was imperative for artists to work in the same style so the final product would appear as a cohesive whole. Only in the 20th century would posters be designed by a single artist; these included Roland Butler, Maxwell Frederic Coplan and of course Charles Livingston Bull, who in 1914 created the most famous circus poster of all time – the leaping tiger. 

 Vintage poster art commemorative stamp block of the U.S. Postal Service


Art and money

Circus and entertainment posters were big business in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the most iconic images were being produced. Of prominence was Cincinnati, Ohio-based Strobridge & Company, whose early works remain some of the most desired today. By the late 19th century, the company had P.T. Barnum as one of its clients, and at the turn of the century mediated the sale of the Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Ringling Bros. – striking a deal that it would be the sole printer for the new organization.  With the Ringling Bros. ever expanding, this arrangement brought almost every major American circus into the Strobridge & Company list.

Along with being big business, the circus poster also increased in prominence and value at the turn of the century. A lawsuit between printing companies led to the ruling that the circus poster is a work of art, protected  under the same copyright laws as a painting or sculpture.

Nothing to see here

The circus as a whole fell out of the limelight in the 1940s with the advance of radio, film and television. Although traditional circuses still toured, poster advertisements were few  by the 1970s and replaced with simple window placards, one-sheet telephone pole signs, and in more recent years, bus ads. Interestingly, it was around this same time, in the 1970s and ’80s, that a new type of circus came about – those like Cirque du Soleil, which focus on dance, theatre and music – and a dramatic new look in circus poster art.   

With smartphones and iPods and tablets distracting us from our surroundings as we take even the simplest of walks, advertising no longer has the attention-grabbing pull it once had. And yet, that traditional heavy red lettering of a circus poster can’t be denied. The circus is coming to town. And a smile comes to our face.

With information from:


"Elois the Elephant" illustration

Contemporary art print inspired by vintage circus poster art.
More examples.

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