Big Top Magic

Big Top Magic  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Poster Auctions International.

Crowds in the 19th century rarely complained about spending a few pennies to see Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth.”  A man-eating chicken, an oversized African elephant, Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins—who could ask for more?

The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.  Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  It is the only spectacle I know, that while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.
— Ernest Hemingway

Oddities of nature amaze and repulse people.  The circus plays on that duality and evolved as its own kind of moving art form.  P.T. Barnum was so famous he was usually given the first offer of “so-called” freaks and oddities from all over the world.  He also paid the most. 

In 1871 Barnum was one of the best known showmen in America.  Just the name Barnum was a huge drawing card.  His big top circus performed under the largest tents ever erected and was the first circus to travel completely by train with its own cars.

“The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money,” Ernest Hemingway said.  “Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  It is the only spectacle I know, that while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

The clowns, animals, lights, ringmaster, bareback riders, and trapeze artists, all play their parts in the dream for a dramatic impact. 

In 1881, Barnum merged with competitor James Bailey, forming Barnum & Bailey's Circus.  Eventually it would become Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

One of Barnum’s biggest attractions was “Jumbo” the African elephant.  The animal was billed as “The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race.”  Purchased from the London Zoo for a $10,000 in 1882, Barnum viewed Jumbo as the ultimate cash cow.

The British were heartbroken to lose Jumbo.  Thousands of letters were written to the press.  Even Queen Victoria got involved asking the zoo to refuse delivery of the elephant.  Barnum wouldn’t back off. 

Jumbo along with “Whimsical Walker” the clown sailed to America on the “Assyrian Monarch.”  For 18 months Barnum exhibited Jumbo all over the country. 

The circus averaged $15,000 daily with the elephant as its main attraction.  It ended too soon for Barnum.  As Jumbo leisurely walked along a railway track one day a locomotive hit him.  He tumbled down an embankment to his death. 

The show went on.       

When the Barnum & Bailey Circus toured Europe at the turn-of-the-century the German army was on hand getting pointers on how to efficiently and quickly load and unload rail cars.  Stateside, the American Army did the same.  Before long, two of the most powerful armies in the world were modeling their transportation systems after the circus.

Before radio and TV advertising the circus wasn’t easy.  Printers used the best artists to design circus posters and most artists worked in teams.  That’s why posters are known by the companies producing them and not by the artists. 

The Strobridge Company based in Cincinnati was one of the best American lithographers at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.  Never meant to last a lifetime, these colorful treasures of the past are compelling to look at and own.

On May 2, Poster Auctions International, New York City, featured a selection of original Barnum & Bailey circus posters in its 50th poster auction.  

Strobridge Lithograph Circus Posters

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey; Berta Beeson, high wire act; 28 1/8 inches by 40 ¾ inches;  $1,035.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey; Congress of Trained Animals; tiger leaping through ring of fire; 40 inches by 52 ¾ inches;  $1,035.   

Barnum & Bailey; Quatre Grands Batiments; four of the largest buildings in the world housing the shows; 1901; 28 ¼ inches by 74 3/8 inches;  $1,150.

B & B; Un Tableau Realistiques; 70 railroad cars containing circus items; 1902; 37 ½ inches by 30 inches;  $1,265.

B & B; Japanese Performers; Japanese acrobats; circa 1900; 39 ¼ inches by 30 inches;  $1,380.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

Currier & Ives America's Printmakers

Currier & Ives America's Printmakers

Medicine Man Art

Medicine Man Art