Wild West Show poster a rarity of 1888 advertisements

CODY, Wyo. — More than 20,000 people packed the grandstands at
a London performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1887,
including Queen Victoria and members of the royal family.

The story of the performance, which helped solidify William F.
“Buffalo Bill” Cody’s reputation as an international celebrity and
American folk hero, is well known.

But it came as a surprise to Western historians when a large
poster depicting the command performance surfaced recently at a
Colorado auction.

Nothing as large or in such fine condition was known to exist,
and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., jumped at the
opportunity to add the historical “show bill” to the museum’s vast
collection.

“We have other posters here, but most of them are considerably
smaller,” said John Rumm, the center’s curator of Western American
history. “We have a few that are large, but nothing as large as
this one. As intact as it was, it looks like it had come off the
press only yesterday.”

It’s unknown where the poster originated, and where it has been
the last 123 years. Given its condition, Rumm said, it’s possible
that the show bill was never used because of a slight bleeding of
the ink.

“Posters of this size were intended to attract as much attention
as possible,” Rumm said. “It would have been plastered on the wall
of a large building, or on the fence around the arena where the
Wild West Show would be performing. It would have been eye
catching.”

It was May 11, 1887, when Cody staged his Wild West Show before
Queen Victoria.

The queen was so impressed by the show, Rumm said, that she
requested an encore performance on June 20. The show attracted the
kings of Denmark, Greece and Belgium, the crown princes of Germany
and Austria, and the princes and princesses of Prussia and Wales,
among others.

Over the course of that season, Rumm said, the Wild West Show
dazzled European crowds. It was Cody’s first trip abroad.

“He was lionized,” Rumm said. “In terms of America, he came back
to a sort of hero’s welcome. He was seen as representing the U.S.
at a time when the country was still seen as a second-rate world
power.”

Rumm believes the poster was printed in 1888 after the Wild West
Show returned from London. It’s unknown if the artist who drew the
poster worked off the sketch of another artist or a photograph
taken in London.

“I haven’t seen this exact scene before, but I suspect the
artist would have worked from a photograph or a rendition,” Rumm
said. “It would have been done with the use of four-color printing
and engraved blocks.”

To get the job done, Cody had turned to the Calhoun Printing Co.
of Hartford, Conn., which enjoyed a national reputation for
printing posters, show bills and other outdoor advertising
materials.

But creating a four-color poster spanning 28 feet was something
of an undertaking in 1887. The job required 763 printing blocks,
each measuring about 29 by 12 inches. The poster itself includes 32
sheets, and would have been pieced together, not unlike decorators
hanging wallpaper.

“Some of these Wild West pictures are the best samples of pine
wood engraving ever seen,” the Hartford Courant reported on July
13, 1889. “Two or three of them are copies of Remington’s sketches
in the ‘Century,’ notably ‘The Bucking Bronco’ and ‘Saddling of
Kicker.’ The immense portrait of Buffalo Bill is also a wonderful
fine piece of work.”

Cody had signed a contract with Calhoun Printing in 1883, just
as the Wild West Show was set to premiere. The firm was engaged to
be the troupe’s primary supplier of advertising materials for six
years, providing mostly single-sheet posters.

“Cody would have wanted to go with the best, and he did by
contracting Calhoun,” Rumm said. “It was state of the art
engraving, and it was pretty spectacular to have that kind of
contract. They were the primary printers for P.T. Barnum as
well.”

Rumm said the poster will serve as a centerpiece of a new museum
display currently under construction.

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