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Before the internet, before television, even before radio, American circuses faced the monumental task of advertising their imminent arrival in a town. This job was made all the more difficult by the fact that, at that time, unless it was a large metropolitan area, the circus would only be in town for a day.
Selling a product that was only available for one day meant getting across a clear and enticing message informing potential customers of the most important facts: What? When? and Why? A circus would generally spend more on its advertising than on any other single part of its operating costs.
The poster was a remarkably effective way of communicating with potential customers. Weeks before a show rolled into town, bill posters had all available walls, windows and fences covered in colorful paper, as show posters were known. The bright colors, beautiful artwork and amazing subjects sparked an excitement that would build until the arrival of the show. From their initial design to the way in which they were hung all over town, circus posters were intended make certain that no one could fail to know that the circus was coming.
At the height of the circus poster, the process of choice, for both economic and artistic reasons, was lithography. In the lithographic process, a design is applied, in reverse, onto limestone, using a grease crayon or liquid. An oil based ink, which was rolled over the stone, would adhere to these greased areas and, when run through the press, would transfer onto the paper. The ink was applied in a continuous tone, not in small dots, so it allowed for well-defined details.
When circuses began printing lithographs, they incorporated the term sheet into their description of a poster’s size. A one sheet poster measures approximately 42 inches by 28 inches. This size is exactly that of the standard lithographic stone. Circus personnel refer to a poster’s size based on the number of sheets that make it up. Strobridge Lithographing Company records printing a 100 sheet poster for the W.W. Cole Show. The poster’s final measurements were 15 feet by 100 feet.
Some of the most acclaimed printing houses for circus posters include Courier Company and Strobridge Lithographing Company. Courier printed posters for the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Strobridge printed for Barnum & Bailey, Adam Forepaugh and, eventually the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. Morgan Litho and Erie Litho also printed for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Show.