I got this idea for a collection of vintage circus posters after “The Greatest Showman“. It was on a flight from London to Vancouver last summer where I watched the film for the first time. It’s not the best way to watch such a visual spectacular! But it still had an impact on me.
The circus fever stayed with me all holiday. The soundtrack of the show ended up being the soundtrack to our fabulous vacation as I blasted it through the car speakers on our Canadian road trips. On the flight home, I caught my husband and young adult sons watching the film and smiling. Believe me, it is not the sort of film they would normally choose, action and sci-fi is more their genre.
Copyright Free Vintage Circus Posters
In celebration of this great film and because they are fabulous I have curated a lovely collection of copyright free vintage Circus posters and illustrations.
The film is based on the inspiration and life of the showman P.T. Barnum (Phineas Taylor). Amongst Barnum’s many roles in life from, businessman, showman and politician, he founded the Barnum & Baily circus. In this collection of colourful vintage circus posters there a few from the Barnum & Baily circus.
The Barnum & Baily circus was an American circus often billed “The Greatest Show On Earth”.
This collection of free vintage circus posters has recently been updated to include posters from other circuses around the world.
At the end of the post, there is a wonderful collection of vintage illustrations of circus performers too.
To download high-resolution images of the vintage circus posters just click on the picture title. A higher resolution image will open in a new window on your browser. If you right click on that circus poster you will be able to save it to your devise.
The Vintage Circus Posters and Illustrations
A fabulous advertising poster from Barnum & Baily’s “The Greatest Show On Earth”. The poster shows performers diving from great heights into shallow waters and clowns in the ocean at Coney Island, New York.
Shallow diving is where the performer dives from an impressive height into the shallowest of water. It was often the impressive climax show stopper to many circuses.
A band of 25 men dressed in red and blue uniforms and playing a variety of horns parades through the street lined with crowds of spectators. The “Double Brigade Brass & Reed Band” is billed as the “largest traveling musical organization in the world.”
Every one of the 25 musicians is named and the instrument they play is listed down the side of the poster.
The poster shows the skeleton of Jumbo the elephant. Jumbo was an orphaned Sudanese Elephant that was originally sold to Paris zoo and then to London Zoo.
Jumbo was controversially sold to P. T. Barnum in 1882. Over 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell the elephant. P.T. Barnum paid £2,000 for Jumbo. He took him to the US and exhibited Jumbo at Madison Square Gardens in New York. Within 3 weeks Barnum made back what he had paid for the elephant.
When in New York, Jumbo was one of Barnum’s elephants that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to prove that it was safe after 12 people died during a stampede caused by mass panic over collapse fears a year earlier. Jumbo was unfortunately killed a year later in 1885 in a collision with a train.
After this large elephant, the word “jumbo” has become a common word in the English language meaning large.
Vintage Circus poster showing WM. H. Batcheller, “The champion leaper” jumping through a hoop over an elephant. Theposter also shows a head-and-shoulders portrait of Batcheller in the lower right corner of the poster.
An old circus poster of Barnum & Bailey advertising the Silbons flying trapeze artists. The caption on the poster reads “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth – The world-famous Silbons, the masterly monarchs of the air, in a series of most difficult, ingenious and startling aerial feats – The World’s Largest, Grandest, Best Amusement Institution”.
Another fabulous circus poster advertising the main attractions of The Greatest Show On Earth”. This time for the flying trapeze act The Flying Dillons, brought over from Europe.
The Ringling Brothers circus was founded in Wisconsin by 5 German immigrant brothers. Their circus later merged with Barnum & Bailey.
This vintage circus poster advertises the novel head walker Alexander Patty. The New York Athletic Club Journal (1905) described the act as follows
“Of the feats of the Patty Brothers, it may be briefly said that the audience was experienced and thought it knew the possibilities of gymnasts, contortionists, and ground and lofty tumblers. But it had never seen Mr. Alexander Patty walk on his head.”
“He did it and for a distance of yards. He also “jumped” down a flight of steps, using his head exclusively as his feet, and the brothers, one standing on his head on the other’s head, ate, played violins and juggled iron dumbells and solid shot like a cheap amateur can pool balls while standing on his feet.”
This vintage circus poster describes the Raschetta Brothers act as the following: “Sensational hazardous somersaulting exploits & indescribably accurate scientific vaulting evolution’s. Feats of agility & daring that seem absolutely impossible. Now seen for the first time in America.”
A fabulous large old circus poster (1899) showing five separate parades of people in costume and animals. The parade represents a “caravan crossing the desert,” “children’s fairyland,” “famous mounted military companies of the world,” “warfare in the Punjab,” and “national English derby day.”
The poster advertises the act M’lle Beeson “A Marvellous High Wire Venus”
Adam Forepaugh was another American circus owner. He joined forces with the Sells Brother for this particular event.
The caption on this vintage circus poster is as follows “Terrific flight over ponderous elephants by a company of twenty-five splendid artists in a competition for valuable prices”.
“Introducing high, long distance, layout, twisting, single and double somersault leapers. Enlivened by mirth-provoking comedy surprises.”
Another Forepaugh & Sells Brothers circus advert, this time featuring clowns.
The Gentry brothers circus was formed by four brothers from Bloomington, Indiana. Their circus was noted for the dog and pony acts. This advertising circus poster features Louise Hilton, “the greatest rider the world has ever known.”
Another fabulously colourful Barnum & Bailey vintage circus poster of “the marvelous foot-ball dogs”.
“An entirely new, startling and interesting water exhibition. Terminating in tremendous headlong dives from enormous heights”.
An advertisement poster for an American pantomime company called Humpty Dumpty, organized by Abbey & Hickey. The pantomime was a British art form with two parts: a highly stylized harlequinade that involved clown characters derived from older Italian forms, and a slapstick, zany musical theatre component based on a fairy tale or folk tale.
A December 1879 advertisement for this show bragged that it involved a cast of 125 people. From the collection at the Library of Congress.
A 1902 French circus poster, “Batty bear trainer, the biggest attraction of the day“.
Gibson & Co. Circus Poster : “Calliope! The Wonderful Operonicon or Steam Car of the Muses” (1874).
From the Library of Congress collection.
A vintage poster for Cirque d’Hiver (winter circus) shows an aerialist floating with arms outstretched above a city skyline with a hot air balloon in the background.
A vintage French circus poster shows a group of aerialists performing. Two women are held aloft by a balloon attached to their hair. The portrait on the center balloon is possibly Miss Stena.
French circus poster shows two performers in the basket of an airship navigated by a rudder and a propeller. The basket bears the date 1884.
Daring Madam Castello’s amazing exploits on the equine marvel “Jupiter”. Promotional poster for Ringling Brothers by the Coach Lithographic Co., Buffalo, New York, ca. 1899.
A 1898 poster advertising The Great Wallace Shows circus, featuring “the renowned Stirk Family.”
An 1892 French winter circus poster.
Illustrations of Circus Performers
The following collection of free downloadable vintage circus prints are illustrations and paintings of individual circus performers and acts rather than circus advertising posters.
This beautiful 1874 circus painting is called “The Lion Queen”. If you notice the main three big cats, lion, tiger and jaguar are all in the painting.
A rather impressive vintage circus illustration of an elephant riding a bike with a lion on it’s back.
You can find more vintage elephant illustrations here.
A montage of vintage circus acts, all featuring animals. Many examples of bareback horse acrobatics, an elephant ride and a lion tamer.
The art of performing acrobatic and gymnastic feats on the bare backs of loping horses was referred to as bareback riding in the circus
Another circus illustration featuring bareback riding. This time with two horses and two acrobatic circus performers.
A fabulous circus painting of a performing elephant.
A vintage circus poster of an elephant circus procession.
An elephant and clown tea party at the circus.
Five celebrated clowns attached to Sands, Nathans Co’s Circus 1856. From the Library of Congress.
Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Greatest Act. The Only and the Greatest Performing Sea Lions in the World.
I have used the imagery in these posters to create some vintage circus clip art and used them to make a cool vintage circus diorama and ornaments.
These vintage circus posters are so colorful that they would compliment the collection of vintage color wheel posters on Pictureboxblue.
Cheek out these collections too.