The Circus in Vintage Graphics (1903-1935)

1910s 1920s Barnum & Bailey Circus early 1900s Edward Penfield F X Leyendecker magazine art magazine covers posters sheet music art sheet music covers vintage magazines

Although not as popular today, the circus was always a sensation when it would come into town a century ago. Today, we will be celebrating this quaint form of entertainment through the graphics it inspired.

But before we look at the graphics, some historical context is in order. The origins of the circus are complex and obscure, which has historians debating to this day. Some say it began in Ancient Rome, whereas others attribute the first circus to English equestrian Philip Astley, who put it on on April 4, 1768.

Since the Roman circus was an altogether different affair from the one we typically think of when we hear use of the word, and also because the graphics I'm about to show you are much more recent than Roman times, I've decided to begin this entry with Astley.

Though his acts consisted mainly of horses and sword-play early on, he added the clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, and acrobats in 1770, thus ushering in the format we are most familiar with.

Fifteen years after Astley's circus, (almost to the day,) a circus was established in America by John Bill Ricketts, also an Englishman. The shows kept spreading in America until, in 1871, P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup established Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Through its innovations on the circus medium, and its grandiose sensationalizing thereof, the Barnum & Bailey Circus indelibly cemented the modern concept of the circus, and was successful for over a century before its final show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New York on May 21, 2017.

As popular as the circus was, it inevitably found its way into various vintage graphic arts, many of which I'll be showing you below. They will be presented in chronological order.

Artwork by Edward Penfield (1903)

Lithograph by A. Hoen &Co. (1904)

Artwork by F. X. Leyendecker (1906)




Artwork by Victor C. Anderson (1921)



Artwork by Ray C. Strang (1929)

Artwork by Ruth Carroll (1934)

Artwork by Franz Felix (1935)

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