All in a Word

Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Alva Edison by Alfred S. Seer Engraver; Copy after: Mathew B. Brady, Color woodcut poster, c. 1878 Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Museum goers might be stumped for a minute by an old-fashioned word in the title of a new show, Ballyhoo! Posters as Portraiture, opening Friday at the National Portrait Gallery.


I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used it in a sentence and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Here, for the uninformed is a definition, by way of a few of its synonyms: advertising, promotion, marketing, propaganda, push, puffery, buildup, boosting, fuss, excitement, informal hype, spiel, hullabaloo, splash. Packs some punch, doesn't it?

Wendy Wick Reaves, the show’s curator says it has its origin in 19th-century circus rhetoric, "flamboyant hucksterism" (hmm, hucksterism, use that word in your next text message). Still not sure, though, I keyed the word into ProQuest, my favorite online database of old newspapers. Scribe Henry E. Dixey of The Chicago Daily Tribune reached across the decades and clued me in. His 1909 treatise follows:

It was the custom of dime museum proprietors to station in front of the 'palatial palaces of public pleasure' a leather lunged person who lied in a loud voice about the museum's attractions, seeking to induce the passers-by to purchase tickets for the extraordinary exhibition within. This man's speech was called a "ballyhoo." The species is not yet extinct—he stands in front of animal shows, merry-go-rounds, loop-the-loops, midget cities, dime museums, and other art centers, with a small cane, a big black cigar, stripped clothes and a brassy voice, guffawing the glory of his wares to the chin-whiskered public who 'stop! pause! and consider!' the ferocious falsehoods with which he beguiles them.  

So, ballyhoo, or promotion, became the stuff of posters—graphic works used in advertising and marketing, wartime propaganda, presidential campaigns, protest movements and film and music promotion. Check out the ballyhoo in a poster about Thomas Edison's phonograph. "It Talks! It Sings! It Laughs! It Plays Cornet Songs."

The museum's show emphasizes the portraits—of Buffalo Bill Cody, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, even Johnny Depp—in 60 posters from its collection. It's a graphic feast. Huge, boisterous type sprawls across exhibition walls. Curator Reaves says the poster aesthetic is "fun, vivid."

And that ain't no ballyhoo.

(Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery: Thomas Alva Edison by Alfred S. Seer Engraver; Copy after: Mathew B. Brady, Color woodcut poster, c. 1878.)

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