Among the more than 200,000 images of rural life by photographers working for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration during the New Deal are hundreds of images of the American sideshow. Taken by Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee at state and county fairs in Vermont, Ohio, Louisiana and Texas, the photos document the midway shows of the late 1930s and early ’40s and their glorious banners.
The two banners seen above–Human Freaks and Personality Fat Girl are the work of the Coney Island studio of Millard & Bulsterbaum. The firm’s name and address — 2894 W 8th Street — can be seen in the lower right corner of the banners. “Just one more bolt of cloth will make it,” says a tailor depicted fitting the glamorous fat girl with a new costume. Algernon Millard and John Bulsterbaum, who were in business from 1915 though the Depression, were considered the best in the business.
This banner for a 28-toed cat and a cat with six paws was part of a banner line also featuring sea gull ducks, midget mules, a pop-eyed cow, and a “Charlie Chaplin chicken.”
In this nicely framed shot by Ben Shahn of a homemade front for the single-o “Ramo- 4 horns, 3 tails,” a weird, alligator-like creature appears on the bally stage.
After a sideshow promoter made Zorine, Queen of the Nudists and the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony the sensation of San Diego’s 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition, imitators sprang up on carnival and fair midways. This banner for the “Nudist Colony” at a county fair in Ohio asks “Are they ever ashamed?”
Shows featuring talkers and inside lecturers dressed as nurses and doctors helped explain the wonders and mysteries of medical science in the days before television and the Internet. Step right up to the College of Hygiene Science!
Related posts on ATZ…
November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner
June 27, 2013: Photo Album: The Front of the Show at Meadowlands Fair
November 4, 2012: Up for Auction: Ringling Bros Circus Side Show Poster