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Circus poster exhibition sensationally brings to life America's first colossal entertainment industry
Hillary Long, The Strobridge Lithographing Company, 1918 • color lithograph poster • one sheet, 28 ½ X 38 3/8 in. • printed, in margin, upper right: 18-R-220; imprint, lower right: COPYRI GHT 1917 BY THE STROBRIDGE LITHO. CO . CINCINNATI & NEW YORK • The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art • SN 1547.204.12

SARASOTA, FL.- Before television, radio, film and the Internet, the circus was America’s colossal entertainment industry. Circus owners enticed massive crowds with brilliantly colored, boldly bombastic posters that advertised never seen before attractions, performers and animals from all corners of the globe, including Jumbo the Elephant and Gargantua The Great, as well as new innovations such as the automobile and electrical lights.

The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company, 1878-1939 showcases the cultural influence of the circus on America in a special exhibition at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., that runs through January 29, 2012.

The works exhibited span from the time of P.T. Barnum’s greatest show on earth to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The traveling exhibition opened in February at the Cincinnati Art Museum and is currently running through July 10, 2011.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century in America, the major holidays were the Fourth of July, Christmas, and the day the circus came to town,” said Steven High, executive director of the Ringling Museum. “Circus owners relied on posters to advertise the show and to fuel excitement so that the colossal tents were filled with children of all ages. When it came to producing incredible poster designs and reliable delivery, the Strobridge Lithographing Company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the industry leader.”

With an array of dates and show titles, the posters in the exhibition range from the image of the woman, horse and clown, done by the American impressionist Edward Henry Pottast (1857-1927) to the romantic Ringling Bros. poster of In Days of Old, to iconic image of the leaping tiger. All 80 circus posters displayed in the Ulla. R and Arthur F. Searing Wing of the Ringling Museum of Art were made in America, produced in Cincinnati and distributed throughout the country. The exhibition draws from the collections of the Ringling Museum, Howard Tibbals, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The exhibition is co-organized by the Ringling Museum and Cincinnati Art Museum.

The Ringling Museum circus poster collection includes the preservation of 145 Strobridge posters ranging from half sheets to sixteen sheets, as well as window cards and original designs. The Tibbals Collection entails 1,151 Strobridge posters ranging from half sheets to thirty-two sheets, in addition to window cards, trade cards, calendars, design cards, and original design artworks. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection includes 702 circus posters.

“Featuring colorful exotic animals and people performing remarkable feats of flight and strength, the circus poster in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries changed the face of American advertising forever,” explained Janet M. Davis, Associate Professor of American Studies, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

One of the first forms of visual communications and outdoor advertising, the circus poster boasted colorful eye-catching images and fantastically enticing copy that brought the stars-of-the-show sensationally to life. The ability to print the thousands sheets of paper quickly and efficiently was made possible through the lithographic process, a flexible medium quickly embraced by printers, including the famous Strobridge Lithographing Company.

“As early examples of mass marketing, these circus posters document a vibrant record of social change and new technology,” said Deborah Walk, Tibbals Curator of the Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum, who co-curated the exhibition with Kirstin L. Spangenberg, Curator of Prints at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “What’s interesting about this exhibition is that visitors can see through the circus posters the immense impact the circus had on American culture and how advertising techniques have changed since then as the pace of our lives have sped up.”

Circus poster | John and Mable Ringling Museum |

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