Amazing Acts and Oddities: 10 Vintage Circus and Sideshow Posters
From trained jaguars and transparent men, to spider women and tightrope-walking dogs - here are 10 vintage posters and banners which capture the amazing world of circus and sideshow performers.
Pinder’s Intelligent Elephants
Pinder's Circus was founded in England 1854 by brothers George and William Pinder. The show toured Europe during the late 19th century, before finding a permanent home in France in 1904 where it became the country's most famous circus.
The circus was purchased in 1924 by Charles Spessardy, who added lavish sets, musical performances and a large street parade, which matched that of its American counterpart Barnum & Bailey. French actor/director Jean Richard saved the show from bankruptcy in 1971, and it continues to operate to this day as the Cirque Pinder-Jean Richard.
Sold by Poster Auctions International in 2012 for $3,200
Sealo the Seal Boy
This original sideshow banner, hand-painted by renowned artist Snap Wyatt, features Stanislaus Berent (1901-1980), also known as Sealo the Seal Boy.
Berent had a congenital medical condition known as phocomelia, which severely stunted the growth of his arms, and he was discovered by 'freak scouters' whilst selling newspapers in Pittsburgh.
He performed at Coney island's famous World Circus Sideshow, and toured the world, before retiring after a successful 35-year career to the Showmen's Retirement Village in Florida in 1976.
Sold at Leonard Auction Inc. in 2014 for $3,000.
The Gibsons Knife-Throwing Act
The Gibsons were a husband-and-wife knife throwing duo from Germany, who introduced the famous 'Wheel of Death' act to the U.S. in 1938.
Having found success throughout Europe, Joe and Hannah Gibson travelled to the U.S and earned a reported $650 per week for their death-defying act. They were later invited to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York, in a major circus show co-hosted by both Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, from where this original poster originates.
Sold at Heritage Auctions in 2010 for $478.
Madame Morelli - Queen of the Jaguars
Marie-Louise Morelli was a pioneering and fearless French circus performer, who travelled the world as the Queen of the Jaguars. She was renowned for her troupe of pumas, wild cats, leopards and jaguars, and in the early 20th century headed for America to become part of Frank C. Bostock's Great Animal Arena.
Morelli tragically lost a large number of her troupe in a fire around 1900, but by 1904 – the date of this poster – she had put together a new team of big cats to tour the globe.
Sold at Poster Auctions International in 2011 for $3,000.
The Spider Woman
This 1937 poster for the Cirque Daniellis in Paris features The Spider Woman – a French version of the famous Spidora sideshow illusion.
The trick, in which the head of a beautiful woman appears to be grafted onto the body of a large spider on a web, was invented by magician Henry Roltair in the late 19th century, and then exhibited on Coney Island before becoming a common sight on carnival midways throughout the U.S and beyond.
Sold at Potter & Potter in 2016 for $3,400.
Harry Qubey's Dog Circus
Almost nothing is known about performer early 20th century performer Harry Qubey, other than he possibly began his career as a "comedy wire artist" in Milwaukee.
However, he apparently decided to change his act for something a little less dangerous – and far more furry. This original lithograph poster advertises his Dog Circus, featuring "The perfection of canine intelligence depicted by the most wonderful troupe of performing dogs."
Sold at PBA Galleries in 2013 for $2,500
Hoppy & Mignon
This 1950s-era banner, hand-painted by Snap Wyatt, features the husband-and-wife sideshow act Hoppy the Frog Boy and Mignon the Penguin Girl.
Mignon was Ruth Davis, born with a condition known as phocomelia which stundet her limbs and fused her digits together to resemble flippers. In addition to her successful career as a sideshow performer she was an accomplished musician, playing the African marimba, and performed at both the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs in New York.
In the 1950s she married her second husband Earl Davis, fellow sideshow performer and former acrobat known as 'Hoppy the Frog Boy'. The couple performed for ten years together across the U.S, before retiring into obscurity in California around 1965.
Sold at Mosby & Co Auctions in 2012 for $4,000.
Bonnie & Clyde sideshow
Outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker made household names for themselves in the early 1930s, following a robbery and murder spree which ended in a hail of bullets.
Following their death in a shootout in 1934, Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled, bloodstained "Death Car" became a popular travelling sideshow exhibit. But even as they were still alive, their exploits gripped the nation in such a way that carnival operators were keen to exploit them.
This original hand-painted banner, dating from the early 1930s, was discovered in Kansas City, Missouri, and is believed to be the only one of its kind.
It advertises a show based on the couple's crimes, and even bears their likenesses, but importantly not their actual names. Promoters feared that Bonnie and Clyde's gang may get wind of a show cashing in on their names, and pay the operators a nasty visit.
Sold at RR Auction in 2012 for $8,000.
Count Orlof the Transparent Man
Ivannow Wladislaus von Dziarski-Orloff (1864-1904), also known as Count Orloff, was one Europe's most famous sideshow performers of the 19th century.
He suffered from a mysterious wasting disease that caused his bones to be thin and flexible, and his skin to become translucent. To combat his pain he became an opium addict, then a highly successful sideshow performer under the names The Ossifed Man, The Transparent Man, and finally The Human Window Pane.
By shining a light behind his limbs it was possible to see the blood flowing in his veins, although not, as some posters claimed, to read a newspaper right through him. Orloff eventually began operating his own highly successful sideshow, with himself as the star, and having travelled the world, he eventually passed away in 1904
Sold at Mosby & Co Auctions in 2015 for $550.
Doc Carver's Diving Horse show
William Frank 'Doc' Craver was a celebrated marksman, Wild West Show operator and inventor of the 'Diving Horse' act.
He was inspired after taking a plunge on his horse from a collapsing bridge in Nebraska, and constructed a 60ft tower from which horses would leap into large pools of water. The show became a highly popular attraction in the mid-1880s, and remained in operation beneath Atlantic City's Steel Pier until 1970.
The show's most famous rider was Sonora Webster, who joined the show in 1924 and later married Carver's son Albert. During a show in 1927, whilst diving on her horse Red Lips, she hit the water with her eyes open and was permanently blinded – but she continued to perform the act blind until 1942.
In 1927, Carver's favourite horse drowned whilst diving into the Pacific Ocean. It was the only horse to be harmed in the history of the act, and Carver passed away just a few weeks later, allegedly of a broken heart.
Sold at Heritage Auctions in 2014 for $2,062.
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