Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America

June 1, 2016
Press Contact: Erin Barnaby

Come one, come all to see the Greatest Show on Earth!

(Shelburne, Vermont) America’s love affair with the circus—“The Greatest Show on Earth”—began more than 200 years ago and endures today in towns and cities across the country. Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America will feature 18 historic circus posters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including some of the largest posters in Shelburne Museum’s collection. So “step right up” to see Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America! The exhibition is on view July 9 through January 22, 2017 at Shelburne Museum.

The circus was America’s most popular form of entertainment in its heyday (1870–1950). These traveling performances went to where the people were and often gave them the only major form of entertainment they had all year. Competition among the various circuses created a “golden age” as each circus tried to outdo the others with ever-more spectacular shows. Cities and towns across the country were wallpapered with thousands of brightly colored and dynamic posters weeks in advance of a show’s arrival. Every inch of exposed surface on barn sides, home exteriors, storefronts, factory walls, and fence rows in a 20-mile radius of the venue would be plastered with fantastical images of wild beasts, daredevils, and curiosities designed to excite and entice audiences. American circuses advertisements were the mass media of their day, adopting a “go big or go home” attitude in both the number and the enormity of their posters.

Highlights include two posters from Shelburne Museum’s collection that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited because of their immense size: Mr. Sage, Proprietor of the Great American Circus and a billboard from the 1950s featuring two giraffes. Another section of the show will feature the historically significant Colchester circus posters from the late 19th century. These posters were discovered underneath the exterior siding on Harold and Gladys Degree’s home in Colchester, Vermont in 1991. Conservation of the posters uncovered evidence of an advertising war waged between the Adam Forepaugh Circus and John B. Doris Circus in 1883.

Due to light sensitivity and the fragile nature of these works, Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America is a rare opportunity to see these vintage circus posters exhibited together before they are returned to storage.