The Sideshow Banner Art of Fred G. Johnson

By on December 14, 2010
fred-johnson-sideshow-banners

Though considered nothing more than mere signage by the artists who created them, sideshow banners have come to embody the curious and quirky spirit of early circus and freak show Americana with their colorful and exaggerated promises of sword swallowers, magic, mermaids, bearded ladies, five-legged cows, two-headed calves and much more all alive for your shock and amazement inside for just five cents!

Fred G. Johnson is considered to be one of the finest sideshow banner painters in the history of the circus and sideshow world. He had a 65-year career of banner painting, creating many works that are still prized by collectors and museums around the world. He worked for the O. Henry Tent and Awning Company in Chicago for 40 years from 1934 – 1974.

Known as the ‘Picasso’ of circus art, Fred G. Johnson designed advertisements for the Century of Progress Exposition, the 1933 World’s Fair held in Chicago, the city’s old White City and Riverview amusement parks, traveling shows throughout the country, and all the great circuses, including Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and the Clyde Beatty Circus.

His banners have been exhibited at the State of Illinois Building, some now hang in museums, and others were auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York.

A native of Chicago, Mr. Johnson started running errands at age 14 for the United States Tent & Awning Co. Banner painter H. D. Cummings was looking for someone to clean pots and do odd jobs and took Mr. Johnson on. The older man taught him to paint, something he learned well without any formal training in figure or scene drawing.

2 headed calf sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Two headed calf

Tiny world's smallest cow sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
World’s smallest cow

Tanagra mermaid sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Tanagra live mermaid

Sylvia big footed girl sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Sylvia, big footed girl

Spider Girl and Sponge Girl sideshow double banner by Fred G. Johnson
Spider Girl and Sponge Girl

Siamese twins sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Robert and Ralph, siamese twins

Rosemary's Baby sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Rosemary’s baby

Professor Milo magician sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Professor Milo

Pinhead sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Pinhead

Percy Pape sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Percy Pape

Ostrich Girl sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Ostrich girl

Obby Dobby sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Obby Dobby

mountain sheep sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Wild European mountain sheep

Monkeys and porcupines sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Monkeys and porcupines

Master of Magic sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Master of magic

Master juggler sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Master juggler

Lobster family sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Father and daughter lobster family

Last Mile Death Row sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
The last mile Death Row

jungle land sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Jungle land voodoo torture

Jeri and Boy Wonder sideshow double banner by Fred G. Johnson

human pin cushion sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Human pin cushion

human corkscrew sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Human corkscrew

Harold Smith sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Harold Smith music from glasses

Half man sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Half man

Half girl sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Half girl

World's strangest birth frog baby sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Human frog baby, world’s strangest birth

Freak oddities sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Freak oddities

Falabella horse sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Falabella horse

Dwarf african goat sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Dwarf African goat

Dolly Reagan sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Dolly Reagan, half lady half baby

Defies death sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Defies death

Cemetary creep sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Tomb of terror cemetery creep

Cavalcade world of wonders sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Cavalcade od wonders, freaks past and present

Cardiff giant sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Cardiff giant

Buried alive premature burial sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Buried alive

Brenda Beatty bearded lady sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Beared lady Brenda Beatty

Armless girl sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Armless girl

5 legged cow sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
5 legged cow

3 legged chicken sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
3 legged chicken

2 headed baby sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
2 headed baby

Nellie the dog child sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Nellie the dog child

Fred Johnson was the oldest living sideshow banner artist until his death at 98 years old in 1990.

His works were exhibited in July of 1989 at the State of Illinois Art Center Gallery as Fred G. Johnson’s Sideshow Banners. They also hang in the circus museums in Baraboo, Wisconsin and Sarasota, Florida.

Among his banners auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1981 were Minnie Ha-Ha the Monkey Girl, Josephine the Electric Girl, Albert the Rubber Skin Man, The World`s Strangest Married Couple and Dickie the Penguin Boy.

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Charlie Hintz

About Charlie Hintz

Cult founder and curator of the bizarre. Send weird news, photos and videos to: info@cultofweird.com Follow on: Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Google+

13 Comments

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  4. carol cameron

    December 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    We have a large collection of Fred Johnson banners too.. the 47lb rat, corkscrew man, half man,( which are pictured above) giant turtle and a few other advertising banners( Boscoe we think was a chimp ) would love to know what they are worth now… all Fred Johnson banners are in excellent shape… any info would be great.. thanks…. Carol

  5. dan

    November 8, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I have a fred Johnson banner that is quite large 20′ long by 10′ wide, anyone know of a dealer in los angles I can get it appraised at and maybe sell it to?

  6. cyndy dumire

    September 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    I have two of Fred Johnsons Banners and one of Snap Wyatt

  7. Nathan

    August 12, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    There are dozens of these banners at the Riverview Antique Mall in Milwaukee’s third ward…

  8. Andrea

    June 2, 2013 at 11:54 am

    We have a collection of 10 authentic banners by Fred G. Johnson at Hideaway Antiques in Toronto. These were from a Harold J. Potter sideshow “Comedy Magic Circus For Family Fun” and they are all in beautiful condition! This is because the sideshow ran for barely a year, then everything was neatly folded and put away.

    People are welcome to come and admire them at our store, they are always amazed to see them. We also offer them for sale, some of the banners and pricing can be seen at 1stdibs.com if you type in “hideaway”.

    Real treasure!

  9. Joel

    March 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    If you are talking about old authentic banners, you are looking at thousands of dollars. These banners were used in every whether condition imaginable so they tended to deteriorate a lot over time. There are places to get reproductions, it’s all a matter of searching. Thanks for posting these pics!

  10. Laura

    December 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

    I had the same question as Jessica – I’m very interested in getting some prints but am unable to find anything but the book – is this something that is available?

  11. Jessica

    October 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    DO you know where prints of these can be found/bought? Im having trouble finding them….

    Thank you – love your site!

    Jessica

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