This weekend, a selection of vintage photos of carnival and circus sideshow fronts is up for bid at Slotin Folk Art’s fall auction. Though the photographs are black-and-white or sepia-toned, they convey how the flashy, spirited canvas banners entranced the eye and reverberated in the imagination.
When P.T. Barnum first brought itinerant entertainers together under one roof in his dime museum (which actually cost 25 cents), he had the building’s facade emblazoned with oval paintings and oversized banners. It boosted his ticket sales by $100 a day, or so he claimed. After the turn of the century, hundreds of circus and carnival sideshows toured the country, and long, glorious banner lines advertising a variety of popular entertainments competed with each other to attract customers.
The above photo shows half of the banner line from a 17-inch wide photo for “Mason’s Wonderland – A Circus In Itself – Living Wonder of Air, Land and Sea.” A Giant Devilfish, Baboon Dog, Kangaroo Goat, and Mouse Circus were among the attractions in this sideshow, which toured the West Coast in the 1920s when carnival midways consisted of a dozen different sideshows and just a few rides.
Professional banner painters working for canvas companies and private studios in New York, Chicago and other cities vied for commissions. “It’s the FRONT! of the show that gets the dough” was the catchy slogan that Caldwell’s Banner Studio in Los Angeles stencilled on the back of their canvases and trumpeted in trade magazines.
By the 1950s, Billboard reporter Tom Parkinson was not exaggerating when he wrote that sideshow banner lines had “stopped more people than all the art museums in the nation and set more jaws ajar than surrealistic art.”
Slotin Folk Art’s live auction will be held at Historic Buford Hall in Buford, Georgia on November 9 and 10. Absentee, phone and online bidding are also available on auction days.
Related posts on ATZ…
October 6, 2013: Video of the Day: The Down Home Daredevils
July 15, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Voltess, the Girl Who Defies Electricity
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