Circus Posters

Boston Public Library

Advertising a circus was difficult before radio, television, and the Internet. To be successful and stay ahead of the competition, a circus owner had to market his show and create a brand that would be recognizable and generate repeat patrons. He had to advertise the features of his show to set it apart from others, and had to display the show's date prominently so that patrons could plan to attend.

Weeks ahead of the circus coming to town, advance men, wielding buckets of paste and brushes, pasted huge, bright circus posters within a 50-mile radius of the circus site. Posters featuring exotic animals, sideshow oddities, and feats of strength and agility encouraged citizens to attend.

Early 19th-century printers used mahogany wood blocks for wood engraving and pine blocks for cruder woodcuts. The mahogany blocks were expensive and the engravings hard to make; printers used them over and over again for different show posters. Many early posters included the name of the show, with a date added later by the circus' advance crew.

Printers enlisted the services of artists to design circus posters; however, few signed their work. While some artists specialized in particular subjects, most worked in teams to create the posters in an assembly line process. Posters became known by the lithographic company that printed them, not by the artists who created them.

Later, printers offered stock poster designs featuring acrobats, clowns, elephants, and other wild animals; the show title and date were added later.