I’ve been interested in really old circus posters since I found out they were a thing. From an artistic standpoint, I love the colors, the art style, and the vague sense of nostalgia for happy-things-that-never-actually-existed presented in an oddly discordant fashion (“Don’t you want to pay a nickel to get some cotton candy and see the Lovecraftian horror, Timmy? Wouldn’t that be fun?”). There’s one thing that circus posters are missing, though, that considerably ups the historical fridge horror.
Nearly every last vintage sideshow poster has a circle in the corner with one bold, all-caps word that speaks volumes. Mostly of shady back-alley taxidermists cobbling together second-rate Jenny Hanivers, and the (often exploited) lives of people that illness, injury, or birth forced to live on the fringes in circuses and carnival sideshows. Nonetheless, there’s something about that one word that seems so bizarrely, ghoulishly non sequitur that it almost gives me a twinge of nervous, uncomfortable laughter to read it.
Just stuck there like an afterthought, in the corner in its little circle. Like Satan’s own punctuation.
Like the answer to a question that feels strange and wrong to ask.
“Here is a tiny cow. ALIVE.”
“Observe the graceful duck that looks like it has another duck shoved up its ass. Alive!”
“Come see the alligator girl! No worries, folks– she’s Alive!”
What the hell?
It conjures up vague ideas of how many viewers were rooked by clever fakes, or worse– how many people went in expecting to see a live person perform for them, only to find a dressed and propped-up corpse instead. How many performers were denied the dignity of a proper burial so their exhibitor could get a few more miles out of them? Julia Pastrana is probably the best-known (and most tragic) example, but there are a number of performers whose mysterious origins and ends are lost to history.
Lest this be too much of a downer, not every performer’s life persisted and ended in tragedy. Some people were able to do far better as sideshow performers than they would have otherwise, some exhibitors were sympathetic, and some performers were even able to have lives and families outside of the show circuit. However, many performers’ biographies aren’t rags-to-riches tales of adoring fans and kindly exhibitors with their charges’ best interests in mind.
In the past, these people were considered curiosities– exotic and intriguing specimens at best, subhuman at worst. Their posters and banners were considered some of the lowest of low art, and having one would’ve been akin to cutting out and framing a Tinactin ad. Now, these posters are receiving some recognition as important pieces of vintage art. While the picture of (xenophobic, ableist) society that these pictures paint isn’t a flattering one, it’s real. The bright colors and inviting artwork make for a unique, visually appealing presentation, but it’s art that can’t (and shouldn’t) be divorced from the lives of the people on the posters.