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
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
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
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
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
Anita Gold - Toledo Blade - August 6th 1989