Sideshow pitch cards have always been one of my favorite items to collect. In the “old days,” you could only find these beauties at flea markets, antique shows, postcard shows or paper ephemera shows. You could search forever and would rarely find a tattooed person pitch card. Once found, they were unusually valuable.
Pitch cards are usually postcard-sized photos of a sideshow attraction, sometimes with a biography or outlandish story of the person being depicted. The card was sold to generate extra income once the spectator was lured inside the attraction by the “barker” or “talker,” the outside man who would shout out about the wonders inside.
One of my favorite pitch cards was purchased at an antique show, held at a high school annually, right here in my own hometown many years ago. The dealer was from Michigan and I have purchased several great items from him. This card pictures Captain Costentenus, the tattooed Greek Albanian. While most early pitch cards were photos, Costentenus is a beautiful early lithograph in color on heavy card stock.
While considered the first tattooed man exhibited in the United States, he was in reality the second. Costentenus was the most spectacular tattooed man of the 1800s, boasting three hundred and eight-eight animal and floral designs, with only the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet being unmarked. The artwork was indeed beautifully done for the time. It is believed he had himself tattooed for exhibit by an excellent although unknown artist, but his “pitch story” was much more exciting. His sideshow story talks of being kidnapped by Chinese Tartars and tattooed as punishment for the rebellion against the king.
Most tattoo pitch cards are fictional, to add to the excitement and drama. The second photo here is from an 1877 P.T. Barnum catalog that I purchased from another antique paper show, depicting the grueling event. It is stated that Costentenus demanded one thousand dollars a week at the height of his career—quite a salary in the 1800s. Now our contemporary public can view tattoo freaks and geeks daily, making the wonderful stories and pitch cards a thing of the past, making the unusual ordinary.
See ya in the funny papers, keep your hat on so I’ll know ya.