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The Sideshow Banner Art of Fred G. Johnson

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

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.

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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

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.