The Social Construction of the Canadian Cowboy: Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Posters, 1952-1972

By Seiler, Robert M.; Seiler, Tamara P. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Social Construction of the Canadian Cowboy: Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Posters, 1952-1972


Seiler, Robert M., Seiler, Tamara P., Journal of Canadian Studies


Cattle people across the western United States and Canada have been celebrating their western heritage annually since 1883, when the cattle people of Pecos (Texas) organized the very first rodeo or stampede. Over the years, one rodeo has surpassed all the others: the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, which has been hailed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth." In this paper we examine selected representations of the cowboy, taking as our corpus the official posters circulated by the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board during the years 1952 to 1972. We focus on the texts as the artful organization of iconographic and linguistic messages and how they were read by their consumers.

Tous les ans depuis 1883, date ou les eleveurs de Pecos (Texas) ont organise leur tout premier rodeo ou stampede, les eleveurs de l'ouest americain et canadien celebrent leur partimoine, le western. Au cours des annees, un rodeo a surpasse tous les autres: l'Exposition et le Stampede de Calgary, qui a ete acclame comme le "plus grand spectacle a ciel ouvert au monde." Dans cet article, nous examinons des representations eles du cowboy, tirees de la panoplie des posters officiels imprimes par le conseil de l'Exposition et du Stampede de Calgary de 1952 a 1972. Nous nous attachons particulierement aux textes dans leur organisation astucieuse de messages iconographiques et linguistiques et dans la facon dont ils ont pu etre lus par les personnes qui les ont regardes.

The cowboy as we know him exists on three interrelated levels: the historical, the fictional and the mythological. In many instances, these levels are so inter-related that determining where the historical figure ends and the fictional character begins is difficult, if not impossible. Canadian analysts face another complication; namely that, at all three levels, the cowboy is primarily an American invention, in terms of the historical American frontier experience as well as the special role of the "frontier" in the American imagination (Hofstadter 48-49; Breen; McGregor). At both levels, the Canadian experience has been markedly different (Dempsey 1-3); yet, every July Calgary stages the world's most extravagant celebration of the cowboy. That the cowboy, together with his world, should occupy the dominant place he does in the public iconography of Alberta in general and Calgary in particular might seem surprising.

In this paper, we examine selected visual representations of the cowboy, with a view to understanding the Canadian version of this popular stereotype.' We take as our corpus the publicity messages (posters) produced for and circulated by the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board during the period 1952 to 1972. Historians (Gray 131-44) remind us that these were the golden years of the Stampede - the years of its greatest expansion. We focus on the artful organisation of the iconographic and the linguistic practices employed in these texts, which we regard as popular cultural artefacts. Popular cultural texts like the texts we examine are relatively open (Hall 1980; Fiske; and Mellinger), of course, capable of being read in different ways by different people. We try to identify the elements that make up the sign systems asking us to visit the Calgary Stampede, together with the principles according to which these elements are linked, and to suggest the social uses they serve. To begin, we outline the conceptual apparatus we use to study ephemeral cultural artefacts, and then we sketch the historical dialectic that shaped the discourses at work in the posters.

Theoretical Framework

The approach we have taken builds on the work of a variety of socio-semiotics theorists, including Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau. It sees popular culture as a site of struggle, focussing on the popular tactics used to evade or subvert the forces of dominance (Fiske 20). Analysts who take this approach argue that ordinary people use the resources the elites (who control the cultural industries) provide to produce popular culture.

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