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Literally, the traveling tented circus was "here today-gone tomorrow."
Since the show would usually be in town for only one day, and give only two performances, the circus management contrived ahead of time many ways to advertise.
Approximately two weeks prior to show day, the advance crew of the circus arranged for the publication of advertisements in newspapers, the distribution of heralds and the mailing of couriers to let everyone know their show was coming to town.
The most important tool used by the advertising crew was the lithograph or poster.
Posters of ½-sheet size or 1-sheet size (28" x 42") were hung in store windows by the hundreds. Posters of larger sizes, such as 3-sheet (42" x 84"), 6-, 9-, 16-, 20-, 28-sheet and many other sizes, including, rarely, 100-sheets, were pasted on sheds, barns, buildings, walls and fences. When appropriate space was not available, the billposters simply went to the local lumberyard, purchased the necessary material, built a board fence around a vacant lot, and then pasted their posters on it.
The circus poster was used profusely. The big railroad circuses thought nothing of using 5,000 to 8,000 sheets per town. If competition from another circus showed up, the quantity of paper used might easily double.
The fifty-year period between 1880 and 1930 was what might be called the great days of the circus poster. There were dozens of lithograph houses that turned out handsome work. Among the leaders were the Strobridge and Enquirer Companies of Cincinnati; Donaldson of Newport, Kentucky; Riverside of Milwaukee; Erie of Erie, Pennsylvania; and Courier of Buffalo.
The circus, of course, was a subject that was colorful and exciting and it was easy for the lithographers to produce designs loaded with action and all the colors of the rainbow.
The magnificence of their work—from artist to platemaker to pressman-is exemplified in the representative posters reproduced in this book.
The posters were scrutinized from sidewalks, from horseback, from wagons or carriages and later from streetcars and autos. The detail was exquisite whether they were viewed from five feet or 50 feet away.
The color and artwork instantly caught the eye. Perhaps the subject was a beautiful, lithe lady on a prancing white horse. Perhaps a startling tiger would be charging right at you, or perhaps it was the graceful aerial acts that attracted attention. These and hundreds of other designs ingrained in the public's mind the fact that the circus was coming.
On every poster the name or title of the circus was clearly printed. Alongside the posters were conspicuous date sheets that told the name of the show town, the day of the week, the date and the month. Repetition of these facts, "Madison, Tuesday, May 27" would subconsciously sink into the viewer's mind.
The reason for showing the name of the town was simple. Circus billers would post towns 15 and 20 miles out (and more) in all directions from the community where the circus would put up its tents.
All of this advertising, as we have seen, was handled by a crew who traveled in advance of the show.
If it was a small wagon circus, the advance crew likewise traveled in horse-drawn vehicles and stayed in town only one day so they could keep two weeks ahead of the show.
Railroad circuses used railroad cars to carry their advance crews. Depending on the size of the circus, they used from one to four cars, each with a crew of from 20 to 30 men.
The first car would arrive in town about two weeks before the show, the second a few days later, and the second crew would cover additional territory.
The men of the advance knew that their advertising had to do a job because the circus they worked for would generally be in town for such a brief time. Nothing was left to chance and they saw to it that this wonderful and colorful and exciting paper was put up in every feasible spot.
The lithographers gave them the best possible tools—their posters. The advance crew got them up where they could be seen. On circus day, when people crowded out to the showgrounds, jammed up in front of the ticket wagons and shoved the shekels of the realm onto the counter, receiving in return a small piece of paper called a ticket-then and then only did everyone know the beautiful posters had done the job for which they were designed. CHARLES PHILIP Fox
Excerpted from AMERICAN CIRCUS POSTERS IN FULL COLOR by CHARLES PHILIP FOX. Copyright © 1978 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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