Circus poster exhibit at Cincinnati Art Museum brings lithographic prints to life

Before the appearance of movies, television, and zoos, the circus was all of those things bundled into a single great traveling show. Advertisement of that product took the form of large lithograph prints, many of them produced here in Cincinnati by the Strobridge Lithographing Company. The Amazing American Circus Poster exhibit, on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) now through July 10, features 80 posters taken from the collection the company gave the museum upon its dissolution in 1971.

Produced between 1878 and 1939, the posters reflect a progression of artistic styles, advances in printing techniques, and the evolution of the circuses themselves. The character of the posters and the acts they advertised were not random – they are the product of the earliest marketing studies, creating the blueprint for mass marketing by 20th-century corporations. Conspicuous is the rise of star women performers: female acrobats, lion tamers, weight lifters, etc., captured the public’s interest, and therefore its disposable income, more than men performing the same acts.

This presents several dilemmas: should the circus operators be applauded for empowering women (and also foreigners, Siamese twins, and other outsiders on their payrolls), or should they be admonished for giving the appearance of empowerment while simply exploiting these individuals? And to what extent did the circus posters themselves shape exoticism?

The cultural complexities created and reflected by the circuses and how they were advertised will be the subject of the Circus Poster Symposium this Sunday, May 1, at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Admission to the symposium is $10 general public; $5 students, seniors, Enjoy the Arts members; free Art Museum members. Reservations recommended.

The Amazing American Circus Poster exhibit is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through July 10. The Cincinnati Art Museum, at 953 Eden Park Drive, is open 11am to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free to the public; parking is $4 for non-members. The Terrace Café, located in the museum, is open 11am to 3pm Tuesday through Sunday.

Emily Schneider contributed to this story.

  • I’ve been through the exhibit twice already. Some of it is bizarre, some really funny, and a bit a teensy racist. It’s interesting to see how much different and more dangerous the acts used to be.

  • This exhibit is awesome and much more interesting than I would have expected. I thought that I’d find the design aspect of it to be my main draw, but the window into social life and acceptability was fascinating as well. This company was actually headquartered on the site of what is now the SCPA in OTR.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    Yeah I went to the exhibit with no expectations and was really blown away. I went back a second time and will probably go once more before it’s taken down, since it’s the most interesting exhibit of any kind I’ve been to in years. It’s worth going just to see the dude roller skating on his head down the staircase!

    Watching people react to the posters is interesting too — pretty much everyone stops to look closely at every single one since it’s one thing after another with them. I watched a kid who was about 6 or 7 look at the giant gorilla poster and thought about how different their experience is from a kid 100 years ago. Since the introduction of television we have seen gorillas and all other animals portrayed in a positive light on countless nature shows and at the zoo. Then they see this ridiculous King Kong-type gorilla on the poster. The kid was 6 or 7 but knew the poster was a bunch of nonsense.

    Also, I really hated the clown posters, especially the “Galaxy of Clowns”. I couldn’t help but picture Marey Povich confronting a clown-fearer with that poster when he had those phobia shows.

  • Kevin

    The Public Library has some of it’s Strobridge collection digitized:

  • So easy a gorilla can do it

    @Jake: While I agree that King Kong is a gross exaggeration of a gorilla, watching TV and going to the zoo should not leave one feeling all warm and fuzzy about such an animal. They should be feared and more importantly, left alone. If you think otherwise, catapult yourself over the moat at the Cincinnati Zoo sometime so that the crowd can watch Jomo beat the shit out of you. Perhaps then you will know to always put a period inside a quotation mark as well as the difference between Marey and Maury Povich.

    One more thing, please don’t try to reason with Jomo or open up your small bag of tricks and call him a shill. Odds are high it will just lead to more bitch slapping.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    So Easy a Gorilla can do it, let your anger pour out.

    For your information, we traced the IP address of the person posting on the transit articles, and they were in fact associated with a well-known anti-transit figure. We were right, you were wrong. I have been following this issue for 15 years — I’ve read all of their preposterous “arguments” so it’s easy to spot a shill.