Joseph Josephs American Sign Painter and Folk Artist
Self Portrait as Grant Pioneer Tanner
Oil on Canvas, signed Joseph Josephs. 28 1/2" h x 22" w
American Heritage Magazine:
April/May 1978 | Vol. 29 Issue 3:
THE RED HOT REPUBLICAN
A good party is better than the best man that ever lived.” So said “Czar’ Thomas B. Reed, the formidable late-nineteenth-century Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was talking about his own Republican party, of course, and “Elephant Joe” Josephs, the gloriously partisan artist whose proud self-portraits appear here, would have agreed enthusiastically. For no more impassioned Republican ever drew breath than this one-man GOP whirlwind from Buffalo, New York. Most of the time, Josephs was simply the city’s best-known sign painter, celebrated only for his flamboyantly decorated shop (see AMERICAN HERITAGE, February, 1975), and for his habit of handing out miniature elephants as a personal trademark to potential customers. But every four years between 1856 and 1880, at presidential election time, Josephs became a man obsessed.
From street parading to stump oratory, Joe Josephs could do it all. Parades may have been his first love: he organized, drilled, and led uniformed marching units—the Lincoln Rail Splitters, the Grant Tanners, the Garfield Wood-Choppers; he painted the banners and transparencies they bore and devised elaborate floats for them to drag along with them. (The 1860 version featured muscular Lincoln enthusiasts on a bunting-draped wagon bed splitting real rails.) Josephs ran rallies and Republican galas, too: he hired the hall; rehearsed the bands; festooned the walls with thirty-foot banners, portraits of party heroes, and brutal caricatures of the opposition. He could make a speech when the occasion called for it, and he also liked to sing, bellowing words of his own composition in “his own peculiar fashion” to the tune of Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys and other Republican anthems. Democrats foolhardy enough to try to shout him down were squelched with lyrics improvised on the spot. All in all, wrote one observer, “He created a fund of amusement with his unique songs and capital caricatures.”
He was not universally admired, of course. The Democratic Buffalo Courier once denounced him as “the well-known painter and worst caricaturist that ever ruined a canvas.” But most people seemed to like him, and when he died in 1893, the whole city felt the loss. “He was a red hot Republican,” wrote the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, “but a good fellow notwithstanding.”
"The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo," Severance, Frank H., ed. Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16, 1912, p. 239
Page 521, Encylopedia of American Folk Art, by Wertikin, Gerard C., and Kogan, L., American Folk Art Museum, Taylor & Francis, 2004
The entire three story building served as an advertisement, in which every exterior surface was covered with letters, pictorial images, cutouts, and framing devices, creating an amalgamation of signs that communicated the sign maker's craft, skill, as well as sense of humor. A reporter for the Buffalo Advertiser wrote that the shop evidenced 'the strength and follies of the present day. A hisotiran a century hence, without any other source of information could read aright the riddle of the times from the designs which Joe Josephs has spread out so voluminously to the gaze of an admiring community.'
"Second Looks: A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County," by Scott Eberle and Joseph A. Grande. Donning Co., 1993
Joe Josephs, sign painter, sometime artist, and Liedertafel singer, was one of Buffalo's authentic characters Like many of his fellow Protestant Germans in the post-Civil War era, he was also staunchly Republican. He was captain of the local rail splitting team for two Republican presidential candidates, Lincoln in 1860 and Garfield in 1880.
Josephs understood the publicity stunt. His shop at the foot of Exchange St. in Buffalo was decorated top to bottom with visual word puzzles and pictures of elephants. A publicity wizard, Elephant Joe could (as the saying went) make people "see an elephant" where there was none.
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