Reuben Robert Merrifield was born 21 Sep 1860 at Wellington, Ohio. He went to work at Kohl and Middleton’s Clark Street Dime Museum in Chicago as a banner and scene painter. Kohl and Middleton’s chain of dime museums stretched all through the Midwest, in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Louisville, Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The peak years for the dime museums were between 1880 and 1900. Entertainments were a variety of ‘platform entertainments', freak shows, hirsute women, dog-faced boys, magicians, mesmerists, learned lecturers, lightning cartoonists, spectacle melodrama, waxworks and the newfangled cinema. In New York in 1886 it was said that “dime museums have sprung up in Brooklyn like mushrooms. One can hardly walk a block in the Eastern District without meeting a dazzling electric light, beneath which he reads in six foot posters that a “refined and elegant entertainment is to be enjoyed within for the small sum of ten cents.””
Winsor McCay, famed creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, painted banners at Kohl and Middleton’s Vine Street Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1891 to 1900. In 1945 wood engraver Charles D. Stewart recalled that time in Little Nemo’s Pa.
“For three years I had worked among artists, being an apprentice wood engraver who made illustrations for books and catalogs. McCay was interested in that. Then too, I knew considerable about color. Most important of all I was acquainted with the work of Merrifield, a really talented artist who made the fronts for the Clark Street museum in Chicago. He was so good that lithographers and other commercial artists would visit the museum on Monday mornings to see what Merrifield had done next in the way of coloring. McCay, in his days in Chicago, had been attracted by the museum -- he was a natural showman himself -- and he had learned much by studying Merrifield’s ideas and his knowledge of color combinations.”
Merrifield provided banners, show-cards, posters and building murals for fairgrounds, side shows, dime museums and circuses throughout the Midwest. He also dabbled in illustration and submitted artwork to the Chicago Exposition. His work appeared in Four O'Clock a Chicago-based "Monthly Magazine of Original Writings," which lasted from 1897 to 1902. Four O'Clock merged with The Philharmonic after Dec 1902 and continued in 1903 as The Muse.
He manufactured his own weather impervious paint, Silko, made from a secret formula that would not crack or rub off of the canvas.
From 1910 Merrifield lived in Brooklyn where he kept a banner-painting studio at Dreamland, Coney Island. Dreamland and its buildings were burnt to the ground in 1911. “Many animals -- lions, tigers, elephants, bears and others in the Ferrari Animal Show -- were burned to death. It was the biggest fire in the history of Coney Island, the loss being several million dollars. Dreamland’s great tower, which was visible for miles out at sea, burned with a roar like that of a volcano, and soon completely collapsed. Fire alarms brought fire-engines and fire-fighting apparatus from all over Brooklyn.” Within two days reconstruction was well on its way.
Side show banner painter Snap Wyatt was apprenticed to Rube Merrifield at Dreamland before opening his own Coney Island shop in 1920. “Before Rube began painting,” he recalled, “which was a long time ago, because he was there with the old Barnum and Bailey shows, the banners were painted in oil and they were pretty drab and stiff. He was a master with the bizarre and unusual, and put color and ad appeal in his painting. Before Rube came along no one thought of using oranges and reds.”
Between 1923 and 1927 Merrifield was busy decorating the buildings at various ‘fetes;’ a Chinese fete in 1922 and a Dutch fete in 1923. He also designed the posters for the events. Seventy carpenters were kept busy “in the construction of the wonderful scenery painted by Rube Merrifield, and in erecting the enclosure, the tents, the booths, etc. There are huge windmills and rows of quaint old Dutch buildings, street scenes and harbor scenes, and fields of tulips, all combining in a riot of color, and all carrying out the distinctive Dutch idea.”
In June 1927 another fete in Long Island was held with a Venice theme. “Two men well known to the residents of the south shore are playing an important role in bringing to Bay Shore this unheard of opportunity. They are Leander G. Homan… and Rube Merrifield, whose magic brush and vivid imagination have time and again made strange and beautiful cities spring up over night. This year Mr. Merrifield is working on the most magnificent and brilliantly colored group of buildings that will overshadow those of early years.”
Rube Merrifield died 13 Apr 1932 in New York leaving behind five children. One of the boys Richard ‘Dick’ Forrester Merrifield worked as an illustrator. Sign painters are rarely remembered to history and its likely that the memory of Merrifield, famous among banner painters and illustrators in his own time, would have been completely forgotten if not for the papers left behind by his first wife Izola Forrester, a pioneering female journalist on the New York World.
*Reuben Merrifield photos HERE
*Sideshow World HERE