1903 Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster

This is a colorful 1903 lithographic Barnum & Bailey circus poster, announcing “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.” The dynamic, involved composition features the iconic "Two Hemispheres" circus bandwagon. A bottom red text block advertises “The World’s Largest, Grandest, Best Amusement Institution” in large white block letters.

At the center of the circus procession is the “Two Hemispheres” bandwagon, the largest, and single most expensive, circus bandwagon ever built. The bandwagon was decorated with two hemispheric map depictions of the world, and was so large it required a team of 40 horses to pull it. The spectacular wagon was crafted by Samuel Robb and a team of artisans, and was covered in elaborate bas-relief carvings. The bandwagon represented the union of the Eastern and Western hemispheres, as a celebration of founder James Bailey’s travels around the world and the eclectic circus acts and exotic circus animals that those travels inspired. Starting in 1903, the big bandwagon was the lead feature of each circus procession for Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” and continued to lead the daily street parades through 1920.

The procession of elaborate circus bandwagons, like the Two Hemispheres or the Asia Tableau bandwagons seen in this poster, would be the highlight of the parades into each town. Always free, street parades were a successful way for the circus to entice the town populous to buy tickets for the circus. Weeks ahead of the show, advance men would paste huge, bright circus posters, like this one, on walls, street corners, and in store windows within a 50-mile radius of the circus site. In addition to serving the purpose of relaying the time, date, and location of the upcoming circus and procession, the posters also ignited a sense of excitement and amazement. Adorned with bright and fanciful illustrations, and advertising stupendous acts with works like “electrifying”, “bravest”, “world famous”, and “exotic”, these posters promised show-goers an unforgettable and one-of-a-kind experience.

This poster, a color lithograph, was printed by the Strobridge Litho Company of Cincinnati, widely considered one of the premier printers in the golden age of American lithography. Strobridge’s signature products were circus, theater, and movie posters. In 1847, Elijah Middleton founded the firm as small stationary store. By 1884, Middleton and his partners W. R. Wallace and Hines Strobridge had a large factory along the Miami-Erie Canal in Cincinnati's "Over the Rhine" area and were producing of the some of the best lithographic posters of their time. The Strobridge Litho Company enlisted the services of the finest artists to design circus posters. However, few signed their work. While some specialized in particular subjects, most worked in teams to create the posters in a more or less assembly line process. Therefore, the posters became known by the company that printed them, and not by the artists who created them.

Circus posters were created as one-off advertisements, hastily stuck onto brick walls and wooden boards with buckets of glue paste and a wet brush. As such, finding original examples that exist in good condition today can be difficult.


This 1903 impression is in good condition. Minor edge roughness to borders. Vertical crease at center fold visible. Two small tears in poster image, very discreetly stabilized. Poster has been linen-backed for stability.

Poster has been artfully presented in a custom-built black and gold frame, and is in beautiful shape for display. Framed dimensions: 35 1/4" H x 43 3/4" W x 1 1/2" D.

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