Sideshow Banners Viewed these Days as Art Work

Sideshow banners touted sensational, spooky, startling, and often eye-popping acts and odd attractions at circuses, carnivals, and other road shows.  Some banners measure as much as 8 by 20 feet.

Today they are considered works of art, and prices for the best of them can be as big as the as the banners themselves.  Most banners are marked or signed with company or artists' names.

Fred G. Johnson is a prominent sideshow banner artist who was born in Chicago in 1892 and has the distinction of being the world's oldest living sideshow banner painter.

During Mr. Johnson's long career, his images on banners attracted visitors to the Chicago World's Fair of 1933, Chicago amusement parks, carnivals, and traveling shows throughout the United States, and, of course, all the great circuses including Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, and Clyde Beatty.


Mr. Johnson, at age 14, ran errands for the United States Tent & Awning Co. of  Chicago but was fired for playing baseball instead of working.  While seeking  employment, he heard that banner painter H. D. Cummins was looking for someone to clean paint pots and tack up banners.  Mr. Johnson got the job and was taught to paint banners as well, though he had no formal art training.

Later, after World War I, Mr. Johnson again worked for the United States Tent & Awning Co., painting banners for owners Walter and Charles Driver.

When Charles split with Walter to form his own business, Mr. Johnson went with him.  Unfortunately, Charles went bankrupt, and Johnson began painting banners in his garage on Chicago's northwest side.


Then when Charles became associated with the O. Henry Tent & Awning Co., he persuaded Mr. Johnson to work for it, which he did for the next 40 years.


The value of a sideshow banner depends on its condition, artwork, and what type of attraction or act the piece depicts.  For instance, at a 1980 Sotheby's auction, auction, a banner depicting "Talented Baboons' sold for $1,980, though it had some tears and repairs.  To check out, buy, and have such banners appraised. write to the Carl Hammer Gallery, 200 W. Superior St., Chicago. Ill. 60610



Article by Anita Gold - Toledo Blade - August 6th 1989


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