From the Exhibition:

Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010

Through a wide variety of ephemera, images, and artifacts, Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010 documents the history of the circus in the city, from the seminal equestrian displays of the late eighteenth century through the iconic late nineteenth-century American railroad circus to the Big Apple Circus of today.

This somewhat mysterious but spectacular poster advertising the “Great American Circus from the City of New York” measures 7 feet across and over 10 feet in height, making it one the largest extant examples of antebellum American printing. A Mrs. Herbert Scoville discovered it at the bottom of a trunk in Portugal and donated it to the Shelburne Museum in 1960. The poster, which is made up of nine separate sheets, was folded up and in pieces when it was accessioned and put into storage by the museum. There it remained until curator Kory Rogers brought it to my attention in the fall of 2010 when I was searching for materials to include in the Circus and the City exhibition. Although the poster was in very rough shape, its historical and visual value was readily apparent, and the Bard Graduate Center arranged to have it conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, where it was washed, retouched, and reassembled with a backing of Japanese paper. The conservation work restored luster to this oversized masterpiece of American advertising, one that offers a window into the mid-nineteenth-century flowering of the circus in the United States.

In purely technical terms, this is a remarkable work. A standard-sized poster, or “sheet” in circus and printing parlance, was 28 by 42 inches, and companies often scaled their designs up to make larger two-, three- and four-sheet posters. But a nine-sheet poster was unprecedented in 1843, as was the multicolored top row comprising three vertically oriented sheets. Although there is no indication on the poster of its maker, there were only a few New York City shops that specialized in this sort of work, and it was most likely produced by the printer Jared W. Bell, who made several similar oversized posters for other companies about the same time.

This was a particularly dynamic moment in the American printing industry, as the introduction of steam-powered flatbed cylinder presses and a new method of engraving using pine blocks made the production of large multicolored posters much more economical than earlier methods. Perhaps the most notable feature beyond the poster’s size is the great number of woodcut illustrations, which range from the expansive tinted image at the top to hundreds of small square engravings that border and frame large vignettes illustrating assorted circus acts. A poster this large required an enormous amount of labor on the part of the engravers and printers, who cut and assembled the text, illustrations, and decorations. The crowning illustration depicting Chinese riders in a tent-like structure flanked by braziers required a good deal of skill to execute, as it stretches across multiple sheets that were run through the press with three different formes, one for the black, one for yellow, and one for red. The use of this particular imagery was an expression of what historian John Kuo Wei Tchen calls “commercial Orientalism,” a term that captures the American appetite for consuming products and representations that romanticized the East. This was particularly salient in the entertainment industry, and circus companies capitalized on the trend by offering a range of exoticized attractions in an “Oriental” vein.

The poster’s more traditional vignettes of circus acts provide a kind of visual index of the contemporary circus in the United States. Most of these depict various riding acts, underscoring how the early circus was essentially an equestrian form of entertainment. Both male and female riders are shown posing, dancing, jumping through hoops, and performing acrobatic feats on horseback. There are several examples of what was known as “scenic riding,” in which riders dressed up as stock characters and went through various routines. Visible here are equestrians dressed as an American Indian, a Roman gladiator, and a Moor. In order to remain popular, circuses were constantly innovating or appropriating new acts, and there were a few interesting non-equestrian acts beyond the usual acrobatic and balancing routines depicted, including a plate spinner, blackface minstrels, trained dogs, and a cloud swing. The latter was an aerial act performed on a swinging rope hung in a “V” shape that was an early form of the trapeze. Several clowns costumed in frivolous fashion with striped leggings and other accoutrements are also shown in supporting roles. If the “Great American Circus” in fact offered everything pictured here, it was a typical American circus of the era, centering on equestrian entertainment supplemented by clowns, acrobats, and novelty acts.

The “Great American Circus” was part of a marked expansion in both the number and the range of American circuses in the 1840s. Although the quality of the poster suggests that this was a prominent company, neither “Mr. Sage” nor the company appears in standard reference works, such as Stuart Thayer’s comprehensive Annals of the American Circus or George C. Odell’s Annals of the New York Stage. More likely than not, given where the poster was discovered, it was produced in New York City for a circus company organized for a tour abroad. During the 1840s, a vibrant transatlantic cultural circuit took shape, one that saw a whole of host of U.S. entertainers embarking on overseas tours. American circuses could be found traveling in Great Britain and France, visiting major Mediterranean and Caribbean ports, and, most intensively, touring through Central and South America. Although the poster was discovered in Portugal, none of the spaces left blank for the place, date, and time of the show were ever filled in by the show’s agent, implying that it was not used. The unusual fact that the admission prices were also left blank suggests that the circus planned on dealing with a variety of currencies, but what its itinerary was remains a mystery.

The only clue that I have found about Sage and his circus comes from a report published several years later by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Lardner Gibbon, who was part of an expedition to explore the Amazon Basin in 1851–52. In the Acobamba valley of Peru, Gibbon rather remarkably encountered “a man in poncho and mountain traveling dress,” who greeted the party in “plain English.” He was from New Haven, Connecticut, and the proprietor of a circus company. In his Exploration of the Valley of the Amazons (1854), Gibbon recounted their conversation as they wound their way up a mountain pass, and the man told the story of his travels and his many years in South America. The man related how he often thought of returning to New England, “but nobody knows me now. Years ago I heard of the changes there, and don’t believe I should know my native place. I have adopted the manners and customs of these people, and if I should return to the United States again, I fear my earnings would not be sufficient.” It is only a few pages later, when they part company, that Gibbon confirms the man’s identity when he refers to the group as “Sage’s circus company.” Sage and the magnificent poster that advertised his show remain something of a mystery, but the wide-ranging journeys of both clearly reflect how the American circus entered into the expanding transnational flow of people and goods around the globe during the mid-nineteenth century.

Matthew Wittmann is a curatorial fellow at the Bard Graduate Center.