Sideshow banner
This vibrant sideshow banner displays the many grave perils that face the unflinching sword-swallower. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Hi Doug: I have been following and enjoying your column for quite some time, and now maybe you can enlighten me on the value of one of my own collectibles. Recently, I was watching an episode of the Pickers as they discovered a couple of circus banners at an old defunct roadside carnival. The banners were in average to very poor condition, in my opinion, but they were ecstatic anyways. I have a signed circus banner and I am curious what it may be worth. The banner measures 70W X 90H. The top corners are fine. I am just holding it up for the picture.

Greg A.


Dear Greg: This eye-popping midway banner is absolutely stunning. Who wouldn't want to hang this up in their living room? If this isn't a conversation starter, you may want to try gargling.

Big top memorabilia is extremely popular, and banners such as yours are highly sought-after as American folk art.

Sword swallowing, the subject of your piece, originated in India some 4,000 years ago as a religious practice. It was believed that the performer demonstrated unwavering faith and a special connection with their god.

In 1817, Sena Sama, from India, was the first to put on a sword-swallowing exhibition in America and shortly afterward joined a traveling circus. Perhaps the greatest showman of them all, P.T. Barnum, did not start his "Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus" until 1871.

The heyday of the sideshow began in the 1880s and continued into the 1920s, during a period when promoters sought out people and animals that were physically abnormal and could be billed as oddities or freaks of nature. For a nickel, a person could step inside the seedy carnival tents where the exhibits were "all alive for your shock and amazement!"

Over the years, show impresarios were portrayed as cruel, cormorant exploiters of the hapless victims they shamelessly placed on display. However, in actuality, the entertainers were mostly treated like royalty and coaxed into the vagabond life with lucrative contracts. Many could not have hoped to be as well off, let alone famous, outside of show business. Furthermore, a good number of the acts were simply staged or greatly contrived by nomads who relished being paid well to be gawked at by the morbidly curious public, arguably more aberrant than those they paid to see.

Of course, the sword swallowers actually had a demonstrable talent and continue to this day to amaze their audiences. Your piece shows the variety of knives, sharp objects and juiced electric light bulb the artist bravely swallowed in his show, tempting fate with great peril.

Your banner was hand-painted and signed by Fred G. Johnson, who, behind Snap Wyatt, is the second- most famous of all such artists. Referred to by some as the Picasso of circus art, Johnson worked for the O'Henry Tent and Awning Co. of Chicago for 40 years (1934-1974). Among his clients were The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the Clyde Beatty circuses.

Unlike Wyatt, Johnson had no formal training in art, yet he became the most prolific of them all, supplying carnivals and related entertainment attractions for 65 years. Though he made thousands of posters, if not tens of thousands, during his lifetime, today they surface infrequently and are prized by collectors. Dozens of his works have been preserved as part of the collections of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis.

Far from the fair midway, Johnson worked in a tiny studio in Chicago, seldom getting even a glimpse of the subjects he was paid to portray. Consequently, his canvas images were seldom accurate depictions of the show the customer saw inside. Instead, he let his imagination create a scene, which captured the attention, created awe and stimulated curiosity in the prey of the sideshow hawker.

Headlining the "Champion Sword Swallower," this billboard does not reference a specific artist or act. Its generic nature ensured that it could be reused even if a performer was hastily replaced with another following an unanticipated slip of the tongue.

This banner was from a "10 in 1" show. One admission price allowed the attendee to see 10 acts such as the fire-eater, the human pincushion, the fat lady and the tattooed man. Its size suggests it was part of a double-hung set - two rows, one above the other.

Unfortunately, Johnson did not date his marquees, which he never considered to be artwork, but yours probably was painted between 1950 and 1957. Its vivid colors and condition suggest that it weathered little midway time.

The value of any banner is in the eyes of the beholder. Age, beauty, condition, size, subject matter and historical importance are all major factors in determining its worth. For example, in November 2009, Johnson's "Half Rat Half Rabbit" banner sold at auction for $850 after a pre-auction estimate of $1,000-$3,000. Animal oddities, however, do not demand as much as their human counterparts.

Your banner is on the smaller side of typical examples, many being 16 feet high. Johnson's largest work was 15 feet high and 50 feet long. Size is extremely important, and, fortunately for you, the smaller dimensions of this piece make it ideally suited for display on most walls. Larger banners, contrary to what you might think, have less value because of the difficulty in displaying them.

The size, condition and classic subject matter of "Champion Sword Swallower" will surely pique interest among the top collectors of vintage circus memorabilia. My pre-auction appraisal is in the neighborhood of $10,000.

Contact Doug Smith with your collectibles questions by emailing him at or visiting his website,