Review of Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West by Michelle Delaney
In his influential speech to the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association, titled “The Significance of theFrontier in American History”, Frederick Jackson Turner observed that although the American frontier line had effectively disappeared by 1890, its conquest by enterprising explorers and pioneers had been central to the construction of a specifically American identity. “In the crucible of the frontier”, he declared, “the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality or characteristics”. Although Turner did not mention Buffalo Bill by name, he could have. In his speech he observes that the frontier takes the white man and Americanizes him by dressing him like an “Indian” and transforming him into a fearsome warrior. These words described the mythical archetype of the woodsman and army scout, which Buffalo Bill epitomized. In a peculiar but revealing historical coincidence, while Turner spoke at the American Historical Association meeting, Chicago was hosting its Columbian Exposition, which featured performances of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a large outdoors show that memorialized and mythologized the frontier through exotic pageantry, historical reenactments, and various rodeo entertainments. Thanks to his Wild West show and his ubiquity in dime novels, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was arguably the most iconic U.S. celebrity of his time, while his European tours (1887-1892, 1902-1906) ensured his enduring international popularity through foreign language serialized literature and comics, and, later on, film and television programs. Has any other American entertainer ever been so central to the “branding” of the American experience inside and outside of the United States? With the possible exception of Elvis Presley and the globalization of Rock and Roll, it is doubtful that anyone else has come close.
Cody Studies is a thriving field because of the color and vibrancy of its subject matter, and because scholars interpret Buffalo Bill’s Wild West set pieces as a symbolic staging of various aspects of nineteenth-century American culture, including Manifest Destiny and American colonialism. The Buffalo Bill myth was, from its inception, a deliberate exercise in cultural nationalism and national allegory. Into the crowded field of Cody Studies charges Michelle Delaney’s delightfully illustrated and designed Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which sets itself apart from other studies with its focus on visual culture, advertising, and material culture.
Delaney is an accomplished writer and curator who is currently Assistant Director for History and Culture at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian. Her previous book was also on Cody and visual culture: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Warriors: A Photographic History by Gertrude Kasebier (Harper Collins, 2007), a feast of photographs, pictorial miscellany, correspondence, and narrative about how one of America’s greatest nineteenth-century photographers, Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934), documented and immortalized Cody’s Native American performers such as Chief Iron Tail and Chief Flying Hawk of the Oglala Lakota. Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West attests to Delaney’s continuing fascination with visual culture and telling human details about the people who made up Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Her new book is bursting with rare photographs and color posters, many of which are drawn from the Buffalo Bill Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. The book carries the imprimatur of The William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West, a joint venture of The University of Oklahoma Press and The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which sets the gold standard for impeccably researched and gorgeously designed illustrated books about William F. Cody and the American West. Delaney’s book provides extensive scholarly annotation and exposition to the story of Cody’s formidable publicity machine, alternating between discussions of the men who designed and printed the Buffalo Bill posters, and commentary and context on individual posters, printing companies, and artists. Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a bold survey, a road map that sketches the contours of a vast subject, blazing a trail for future studies in the history of American visual culture.
In the first half of the book Delaney details the technological and marketing strategies that were central to the promotion of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Chapter one explains how a sophisticated lithographic printing process took Europe and the U.S. by storm in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially after the invention of the steam-powered printing press. A nineteenth-century commercial poster began its life as a watercolor or oil painting before being transferred onto lithographic stones or metal plates that steam powered printing presses rolled onto large sheets of paper. This ingenious, technologically driven golden age of the poster became a conspicuous fact of urban life in American cities and small towns, with buildings and blocks of buildings wrapped in vivid advertisements for theaters, circuses, and commercial products. Thanks to its large size and scaled up print runs, and its repetitive or serialized posting, the late nineteenth-century poster was both an outgrowth of capitalist industrialization and a democratization of illustration. Pictures sprang out of the pages of books, newspapers, and magazines to dazzle passersby on city streets. To capitalize on the formidable advertising power of this art form, Cody and his collaborators drew inspiration from popular, nineteenth century Western artists, such as GeorgeCatlin, Frederic Remington, and Charles Schreyvogel, whose colorful and dynamic representations of Native Americans, cowboys, and soldiers monumentalized and idealized Western expansionism. In this way, the advertising for Cody’s show represented both a standardization and reinterpretation of themes, motifs, and styles in American art history.
In this section, Delaney also details the financial relationships, divergent styles, technologies, and artistic processes behind Cody’s partnerships with various American poster companies. Although Cody partnered with over a dozen different printers during his long career as a showman, his most significant advertising relationships were with A. Hoen and Company in Baltimore, Courier Lithographic Company in Buffalo, and the Enquirer Job Printing and Strobridge Lithographing companies in Cincinnati. Delaney’s study of each of these companies in relation to the Wild West is exciting on two levels: it shows how these companies “visualized” the Buffalo Bill myth, with all of its racialized and militarized overtones, and also hints at new approaches to the study of nineteenth-century American visual culture, specifically the representations of male bodies and animals in circus advertising, the closest analogue to Cody’s Wild West advertising.
Baltimore’s Hoen company dominated pictorial depictions of the Wild West in the 1880s, laying the foundation to subsequent publicity campaigns and pictorial motifs. Their posters are romantic and expansive, full of action and hints of contextual storytelling. En media res tableaux of battles and shootouts, such as the c. 1887 posters “A Prairie Pic-Nic” or “On the Stage Coach,” are full of standard Western action but relatively simple from a thematic point of view. In contrast, posters like “Buffalo Bill to the Rescue” (c. 1887) and “The White Eagle” (c. 1890), showed other characters and background elements and hinted at stories unfolding out of the added detail. In the case of “The White Eagle,” we see a stylized representation of Cody staring into the distance while a caravan of wagons idles in the background. The scout is leading the pioneers through dangerous territory and has moved ahead to ensure safe passage. Buffalo Bill’s outward gaze scrutinizes a world of potential threats to the tranquil promise of domesticity evoked by the wagons in the distance behind him. I was struck by Hoen’s inventive portrait montages of “Distinguished Visitors to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” in both male and female versions, which are reminiscent of photo album pages, and the single-character posters that focus on an individual ethnic horseman type like the Cossack or the Gaucho, which evoke the concept of serialization. The celebrity montages suggest connections between Buffalo Bill advertising and other forms of American visual culture: magazine photomontages, photo albums, and trading cards. We can read the association of Cody with famous visitors to his show as an ambiguous text; while Buffalo Bill’s celebrity seems to overturn Old World hierarchies of power and class, decentering kings, princesses, and countesses around the visage of the American frontier hero, his positioning in these portrait galleries also suggests a fetishization of those same feudal hierarchies of power and influence.
In 1896, Cody partnered with New York newspaperman George Bleistein, whose Courier Lithographic Company took Wild West advertising in a slightly new direction by adding complex –even daring—layouts into the representation of Buffalo Bill’s shows. One favored layout in a series of posters titled “Actual Scenes-Genuine Characters,” consisted in the layering of three horizontal panoramic images, one on top of the other, with a bust in the center. It is evident, as with some of the more interesting Hoen posters, that designers are searching for ways to layer in as much story content into each poster, to give depth to each image and hint at the backstories of different characters like gauchos or “Indians” featured in the Wild West show. Other innovations were peculiar abstract designs, such as “Center Hit of the Century” (1896), a poster made up of four concentric circles similar to early film strips designed for a “zoetrope” cylinder that, while spinning, created the illusion of movement. In short, the drive to make the poster come alive, to somehow create the illusion of motion, underlines how the designers at Courier committed themselves to pushing their commercial art form to the limit. The poster “I Am Coming” (1900), in contrast, breaks with the simple, representational naturalism of action scenes by superimposing a large oval-sized portrait of Cody upon the figure of a charging buffalo. It is hard to know what to make of this appealing yet odd layout.
The design work by Enquirer Job Printing and Strobridge Lithographing Company, both based out of Cincinnati, arguably the most important center for large scale printing in the U.S., is flatter, and more standardized. However, Delaney gained access to a treasure trove of archival materials about Strobridge, which allows her to delve into the printing processes of that company and its star illustrators. This explains why Strobridge gets its own chapter. In the context of the flow of Delaney’s treatment of representations of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the Strobridge chapter might seem like a detour, but within the context of understanding the materiality and technologies of turn of the century printing, it is a compelling snapshot into the history of U.S. advertising. For example, Strobridge was particularly adept at creating “colossal stands”, which were a patchwork of smaller posters that fit together like a mosaic to create murals that could be as large as nine feet by ninety-one. “These rare enormous poster displays” writes Delaney, “were carefully designed and posted to create visual impact and feelings of awe in passersby” (113).
In a chapter titled “Wild West Diplomacy and Going Global”, Delaney explores two intertwined developments in Buffalo Bill advertising campaigns: militarism and internationalism. During his European tours (1887-1892, 1902-1906), Cody’s advertising team cast him in the role of an American cultural ambassador who staged rituals of transnational cooperation and amity. Cody’s show accomplished this through the inclusion of European cavalry troops in his performances, and symbolic displays of deference and respect to European powers. At the same time, these posters presented Cody as a power broker. For example, a British company named Weiners depicted the crossed flags of France and the United States behind a figure of the famous showman, with garlands of flowers joining the flags together. In another lithograph by the same company, Cody is accompanied by American and French flag bearers, with the phrase “entente cordiale” drawn in the clouds over their heads and in a script at the bottom of the poster. The use of this phrase, Delaney explains, refers to an agreement between France and Britain to lessen their international rivalry. By putting Buffalo Bill in the central role of mediator, such posters project an optimistic and self-congratulatory vision of the U.S. as a conduit for international amity. To this reviewer at least, this kind of imagery implied that the American exceptionalism that had forged Buffalo Bill as a legendary scout, set the U.S. apart from the Old World, and gave it a providential new role as a leader in geopolitical cooperation. Future studies might elucidate the possible connections between this kind of advertising imagery and the stated and unstated aims of U.S. foreign policy goals in Europe at the turn of the century.
Naturally, such alliances precluded nations considered to be inferior rivals to U.S. power and interests, such as Spain and China, who were cast as villains in Wild West depictions of the the Spanish American War (1898) and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). The staging of Roosevelt’s “charge of the Rough Riders” on San Juan Hill in the Wild West has provoked a lot of incisive commentary in American Studies about the relationship between frontier motifs and the colonialist ideology of Manifest Destiny. Delaney notes the surprising connections between Cody’s posters and the war by reprinting an interview from April 1898 in which the famous showman brags about how he would use “Indians” to defeat the Spanish in Cuba, foreshadowing the mythological afterglow that Roosevelt’s Rough Riders would achieve three months later at San Juan Hill. These odd crosspollinations of myth, celebrity, current events, and contemporary military history have exerted a powerful pull in Cody Studies. Delaney’s book adds the provocative piece of pictorial advertising to the conversation. Another example of the synergy between these domains is Fredric Remington, whose paintings of the frontier served as models for many Buffalo Bill posters produced by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World Wild rivalries of savage, barbarous and civilized races, and who also painted Roosevelt’s charge on San Juan Hill. Unlike other celebratory depictions of the battle by Kunz and Allison printers in Chicago, Remington’s painting has the vitality and dynamism that was a hallmark of Wild West advertising iconography. While Delaney does not suggest lines of direct influence or causation, her analysis demonstrates that pictorial representations of the Spanish American War and American advertising culture inhabited the same cultural and political moment, resonating with each other in revealing and potentially significant ways.
In the category of international combat, Delaney also notes Cody’s representations of U.S. participation in the Boxer Rebellion. A Wild West poster of U.S. forces fighting Chinese foes, alongside French and British forces, titled “Battle of Tien-Tsin and Capture of Pekin” (1901), capitalized on the idea that there was a visible dividing line between civilized nations and “savage” ones. Delaney dwells on this topic in her discussion of several posters in which cultural encounters channel racist stereotypes. The oddest is “Wild Rivalries of Savage, Barbarous and Civilized Races” (1898), which inexplicably positions a green-skinned “Indian” at the center of a cavalcade of different ethnic types. A disturbing poster about the Boxer Rebellion depicts a fallen Chinese boxer in caricature, his brown face in a rictus of unnatural rage as a Rough Rider holds a bayonet over his body. In sum, Cody’s entrepreneurial spirit in adapting his show to enhance its appeal to international audiences, and to transform it into a celebratory display of U.S. military interventions in Cuba and China, demonstrates how prophetic Frederick Jackson Turner was in his 1893 paper when he hinted that the “closing” of the American frontier might call out for new frontiers to test and define Anglo-American identity, to help it escape from the “bondage of the past” (Turner 40). This dialectic between the past and the present, between the glories of frontier battles and the pictorial thrill of new, imperialist ventures, is the subject of several parts of Delaney’s book.
Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a major contribution to the study of nineteenth and early twentieth century American visual culture that points to intriguing future directions for research on advertising, frontier imagery, and American popular culture. Future studies might draw connections between the iconography of Cody’s advertising machine and other forms of illustration, such as collectible cards (cigarette cards, for example), dime novel covers and illustrations, and comics. Buffalo Bill appeared in all three of these kinds of print, and exploring their relationship to the posters that Delaney studies in her book would be fruitful. Another study waiting to happen, and for which Delaney’s book lays the groundwork, is a comparative study of the iconography of nineteenth-century American circus advertising in comparison to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show posters. As Delaney notes, the same printing companies produced advertising for both types of entertainment, and we might assume that many of the artists in these companies worked in both areas. What conventions, layouts, schemas, or flourishes were specific to one or the other? The mention of these directions for future study is not a slight of Delaney’s already encyclopedic, and wide-ranging book, but the opposite. The thematic richness of the vibrant posters, the variety of topics covered, and the useful insights and contexts provided stimulates the imagination and keeps us turning the pages.
Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West by Michelle Delaney.University of Oklahoma Press. 2019.