Conservation USA

Uncovered: American war of circus posters

An exhibition of newly restored 19th-century wooden boards donated to the Shelburne Museum reveals early guerrilla marketing tactics

LONDON. Questionable business practices, smear campaigns and a two-headed woman: not a typical day at the office for conservators at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. The director of the centre’s paper laboratory, Walter Newman, and his team were presented with a series of 19th-century boards from a house in northern Vermont. The removal of exterior siding during a 1991 home renovation revealed several 1883 posters advertising the Adam Forepaugh travelling circus. Soon after their discovery, the wooden boards were donated to nearby Shelburne Museum where they remained in storage until a recent $35,000 donation enabled their treatment.

“It was immediately tantalising because we could see bits of posters protruding from the edges of the top layer of posters,” said Newman. After spraying the posters with a fixative, an immersion in a water bath allowed conservator Bucky Weaver to begin separating the layers. To the delight of conservators and Shelburne curator Kory Rogers, a second set of posters from a rival company—the John B Doris Menagerie and Circus—were found underneath.

“This is an example of a circus poster war,” said Rogers, adding: “When competing circuses had overlapping travelling routes a ‘skirmish brigade’—an underhanded band of mobile advertising agents—would plaster over competitors posters.” There was already bad blood between the two circuses stemming from an earlier incident when Forepaugh, whom Rogers described as a “rather underhanded character”, posted a rat sheet claiming that Doris advocated the assassination of President William McKinley. Forepaugh also publicly denounced one of Doris’s acts, “Millie-Christine”—conjoined twins which were billed as a ”Two-Headed Lady”—as a horrible monstrosity that frightened children. Millie-Christine sued Forepaugh for slander.

“Circuses were an important part of American life in the 19thcentury, often drawing people from a 50-mile radius. They were platforms for the latest technology such as electricity and air conditioning,” said Rogers. Farmers often traded advertising space on their barns for free tickets. Posters on the side of a house is unusual but the owner probably agreed because the property was being renovated and the posters would be covered over.

“The discovery of the Doris circus posters is significant because no one has seen this particular poster depicting Millie- Christine. It’s quite extraordinary,” said Rogers. Conservation of the Millie-Christine poster was undertaken by the Washi studio in Vermont.

Weaver said the most difficult part of the treatment was separating the poster layers without damaging the second layer: “We normally have to separate material from a backing, but in this case the backing was valuable and needed to be preserved.” Conservators used Japanese paper as a lining. It was lightly toned so the poster’s “lost areas” would not stand out.

The posters are on view in “Circus Day in America” at the Shelburne until 24 October.

This article has been updated to correct the name of Walter Newman, the director of the paper laboratory at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts.

More from The Art Newspaper


1 Oct 11
0:26 CET


Inasmuch as these circus posters are for the early 1880s, you might double-check your source that says Doris advocated an assassination years before it took place! I'd look at an event that took place just a couple of years earlier. Interestingly, the clothes worn by that presidential assassin were exhibited by another circus about this time!

23 Aug 10
18:19 CET


Kay, thanks for the link to this extensive archive.

19 Aug 10
21:2 CET


There's some nice information online in the UNC archives about the women, if you'd like to see a photo or learn more about who the poster depicted: Thanks for sharing the uncovered poster and story.

19 Aug 10
21:2 CET


I love old posters, I really love old eastern European Posters ! and I really really lose the Art Newspaper ! keep up the good work!

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