Is That Old Circus Poster You Found Authentic or a Reproduction? More Answers

Nearly seven years ago I wrote my first article for WorthPoint—“Is That Old Circus Poster You Found Authentic or a Reproduction?”—a guide to help identify circus poster reproductions. Ever since, I have been receiving e-mails with comments about that article and questions about posters readers have found. Hopefully, I can answer or clarify some of those questions.

This Tiger Head Poster (Blue) was issued in 1970 for the 100th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey souvenir program. It included a set of four posters measuring 26 inches x 17 inches and sold for $3.98 per set.

The original article focused largely on the posters reproduced by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey beginning in the early 1970s. These were not meant to deceive. One Ringling advertisement said: “You can obtain authentic, full-color reproductions of these great Posters issued by RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY and the great combined Circuses. They’re perfect for dens, playrooms, children’s rooms — even the office!”

The posters were sold at the concession stands of the traveling shows and at gift shops at Circus World, the Ringling-owned theme park in central Florida. Some were folded and inserted into the souvenir program books. You could also order the posters through the mail. The mail-order posters were advertised in the souvenir program book and had an order number printed in the lower corner prefaced with the letter “P.” My original article listed most of those posters. The early ads were for posters measuring approximately 24 inches by 17 inches. Beginning in 1976 the poster sizes were increased to approximately 23 ½ inches by 36 ¼ inches and were sometimes advertised as 2 feet by 3 feet.

Some of the questions were about posters with the “P” code that were not on my original lists. Yes, there were some poster reproductions that were not on the lists in my original article. I can’t find any record of these posters ever being advertised. Apparently, they were only sold on the show or at the Circus World theme park. Some of those posters are pictured here:

The leaping black leopard poster repro has the code P-18 and measures approximately 23 ½ inches x 36 inches.

Bill Bailey created the artwork for the original poster. The repro has P-21 in the lower corner.

P-31 is the code for this repro poster showing animals at the water hole.

This white-faced clown is a bit scary. P-23 is in the bottom corner of this repro.

Four other Ringling posters advertised by the show were not on my original list. I didn’t think it was necessary to include them because they were reproductions of very recent posters. In fact, in 1976, Ringling reproduced its Bicentennial poster from the previous year and the 200 Years of Circus in America poster was reproduced the same year the original was being used. Even originals of these posters have very little value.

The 100th Anniversary of The Greatest Show on Earth began a two-year tour in 1970. The smaller version of this reproduction was labeled P-200. The larger version was printed beginning in 1976 and was labeled P-13.

The 200 Years of Circus in America repro poster was P-16. It also listed the opening dates in Venice, Florida.

Famous clown Lou Jacobs was the subject of this stylized artwork for a poster that was inserted in souvenir programs in 1972. Lou is holding a circus ring with a tiger atop an elephant. This act was featured by Gunther Gebel-Williams. The small version of this repro poster was P-201. The larger version was P-14.

The Bicentennial reproduction advertises World Premiere performances at the Circus Arena in Venice, Florida. At that time Venice was the location of the circus winter quarters and the venue for the first performances. P-15 was on the reproduction poster.

A few Ringling reproductions appeared without the “P” number in the corner. These were typically inserts in the souvenir program. Sometimes you will find a repro without the “P” number because it was trimmed off by the owner. Two that are easy to identify have a date sheet printed below the poster as part of the reproduction. Date sheets on original posters were separate sheets of paper identifying the date and location where the circus would be appearing. Below are two reproductions that do not have a “P” number.

The 100 Clowns repro poster was an insert in the 1970 Red Unit souvenir program.

This Frank Buck repro poster was originally used in 1938. It should be obvious this is a reproduction because of the missing section of The Greatest Show on Earth text on the date sheet.

In 1979 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey inserted a poster in the 110th Edition program book. It featured trained polar bears, but is clearly identified as a reproduction because of a ©1979 copyright date in the lower corner. But these sometimes turn up with the copyright date trimmed off.

This reproduction is printed on glossy paper unlike the original.

Today, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey offers more than 20 different reproductions for sale at the Ringling Store on its website’s store. These are clearly identified as reproductions in the lower corner.

Oddly, in doing research for this updated article, I discovered Annie James Antiqued Canvas Reproductions, a dealer in California who sells posters printed in various sizes on canvas. A few are circus and Wild West, and the order numbers begin with the letter “P.” However, unlike Ringling’s order numbers, there is no dash between the letter and number. Poster P31 is Hillary Long, the man who skates on his head, appearing with Ringling Bros. Shows.

Ringling Bros. poster of Hillary Long was reproduced by Annie James Antiqued Canvas Reproductions.

In 1972, People’s Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sold at least two different repro posters on heavy paper. A 1972 copyright date was in the lower corner. If you happen to find one of these with the copyright date trimmed off you can identify it by the size—32 inches by 25 inches.

Barnum & Bailey’s canvas pavilions were illustrated on one of the reproductions sold by People’s Gallery. The other repro poster was for M’lle Mauricia de Tiers and her auto loop-the-loop thrill act.

Soon after my first article appeared, I started receiving e-mails asking about posters printed or attached to a cork-like or cardboard backing. One such poster had text under the poster image that said “Original Ringling Bros. Poster-1909.” The owner was convinced it was original. After all, the text says it’s original and if it’s in print, it must be true. I informed the owner that he did not have a circus poster, but a decorative wall hanging.

This wall hanging was manufactured by Action Industries in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, probably in the 1970s.

It would be nearly impossible to list all circus poster reproductions, but here and in my previous article, I have made an effort to show some of the most common. A simple Google search will reveal many companies that sell high quality reproductions of circus and other posters.

If you are only interested in original posters, do your homework and ask questions. The surest way to determine authenticity is to measure the poster. A one-sheet poster will measure 42 inches by 28 inches. A half-sheet poster is 28 inches by 21 inches or 42 inches by 14 inches. These were the two most popular sizes, but posters come in two-sheet, three-sheet, four-sheet, six-sheet, eight-sheet, twelve-sheet and even larger sizes.

For more information about circus posters, check out these books:

• “The Amazing Circus Poster, The Strobridge Lithographing Company”, edited by Deborah W. Walk and Kristin Spangenberg;
• “100 Years of Circus Posters,” by Jack Rennert;
• “100 Posters of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” by Jack Rennet;
• “American Circus Posters in Full Color,” edited by Charles Philip Fox;
• “Billers, Banners and Bombast, the Story of Circus Advertising,” by Charles Philip Fox and Tom Parkinson.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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