A 1901 poster advertising a show by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth. The circus was especially popular in the early 1900s and toured all over the United States and Europe. This poster is promoting a show in France and is letting people know the amazing and rare “wild” animals that they will to see at the circus, including a colossal living hippopotamus, a giant monkey, and all kinds of other exotic animals from the distant corners of the world.
Now that documentaries on television and photos in National Geographic have made the rare animals of jungles and deserts familiar sights, it is difficult to remember the sense of wonder and amazement that circus goers of that era would have felt when they came face to face with a gigantic hippo or mysterious and strangely humanoid monkey. For them, these sights were incredibly exotic, mysterious and wondrously new. Sometimes I wish that we could recapture the sense of wonder that existed when the world was just a little newer and a lot less well known.
Barnum and Bailey’s Circus was created in 1875 when the infamous PT Barnum, the greatest showman and huckster who ever lived, invested in an already existing circus. It was he who famously coined the phrase, there is a sucker born every minute and he brazenly put that theory into practice in his show business enterprises, once famously labeling the Exit as “This Way to the Egress,” leading thousands of not-so-erudite ticket holders to rush out expecting to see a wonderful egress.
In 1907 the Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus and after several changes in corporate ownership it is still going, though nothing will ever match the golden age of circus posters from the early 1900s.