What does the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, do with a 28-foot long, 1888 poster of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show? It puts it on display for visitors to see in the Center’s newly remodeled Buffalo Bill gallery, set to open May 19, 2012.
The Center recently purchased the poster, thought to be the largest surviving poster ever produced for William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West. Printed in 1888 by the Calhoun Printing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, the poster consists of 32 separate sheets, measures roughly 28 feet long by 13 feet wide, and is in pristine condition.
In studying the colorful image on the floor, stretched out the length of the Center's Plains Indian gallery, the staff at the Historical Center christened this enormous advertising poster “simply extraordinary.” Much like billboards today, posters pasted to the sides of buildings were used to publicize events like Cody’s show that ran 1883 –1913. Generally meant to be scrapped once an event concluded, it’s rare to find posters like this 28-foot example created in 1888 still intact.
There is some mystery surrounding the Center’s acquisition, however. It was owned most recently by a private collector in Colorado who decided to dispose of it at auction. Before that, little is known about the history of this particular poster—where it originated, who owned it, and where it’s been for most of the last hundred years. It’s even possible the poster was never installed.
"My own hunch is that the poster—really a 'show bill'—was never hung because it had some minor flaws in it, such as where the ink ran slightly," explains Dr. John Rumm, the Center's curator of western American history. "They’re barely discernible and require careful inspection to see. But it would be in keeping for the reputation of both the Wild West and the Calhoun Printing Company to not post a 'factory second,' no matter how minor the flaws were." Certainly, more research is in order to answer those questions.
Originally, the Center’s Conservator Beverly Perkins planned an analysis of the poster including cleaning or making needed repairs. However, once unfurled on the floor for review, Perkins pronounced the poster “in remarkably pristine condition,” and Rumm said the colors were so vibrant that “the poster seems as if it were fresh off the press.” Other than some very minor tears along its edges, the poster is completely intact.
With a caption across the lower left corner exclaiming, “Grandstand at London Seating 20,000 People,” the poster was created to commemorate the Wild West’s special London performance in May 1887. Her Majesty Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Entourage are pictured acknowledging Buffalo Bill’s ceremonial bow from his white horse as show personnel salute the queen from the background.
Staffers Matt Bree and Jeffrey Rudolph have their work cut out for them as Rudolph creates a frame, and Bree builds a special case to both display and house the poster on the back wall of the “Man of the World” alcove in the new Buffalo Bill gallery.
The Historical Center acquired the poster in September 2011 through an auction held in New York City. Monies from the Center’s Acquisition Fund (named for Buffalo Bill’s niece who was also the first curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum)—together with contributions from several of the Center’s trustees—made the acquisition and conservation of this poster possible. Once several months of remodeling are wrapped up this spring, the poster goes on display in the Center’s Buffalo Bill gallery when that area of the museum reopens on May 19, 2012.
(Note: Only the Buffalo Bill gallery of the Center is currently closed to the public; the remaining galleries are open during regular winter hours.)
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