Powerful Posters as Persuasive Public Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Before the internet meme, there were posters.
By Sahar Kazmi
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Library of Congress
Once upon a time, posters full of dazzling images and arresting slogans dominated the media landscape. They were displayed in shop windows, covered billboards and were even draped over human bodies — the so-called 19th-century “sandwich men” who patrolled city sidewalks carrying advertising posters over their shoulders.
Posters, by their very nature, were public. They were designed to speak to the people, to catch their attention and evoke their curiosity. Not unlike today’s memes, they spoke to cultural trends, replicating and repeating popular artistic styles, often with a funny twist. Perhaps most notably, they brought art directly to the masses.
The Library’s collection of posters traverses nearly two centuries and multiple continents. Its contents tell the story of an evolving form that exhibited the work of major artists and promoted everything from food to political candidates.
These historical posters tout dance shows and circuses, tourism and theater, military recruitment and social rebellion. They advertise household goods and mind-melting drugs; sell war bonds and butter, victory gardens and deli meats.
One of the Library of Congress’s oldest posters, an enormous (and possibly, for some, terrifying) woodcut print titled “Five Celebrated Clowns” hails from 1856. Punctuated with bright blues and tangerine reds, the poster for Nathans Co’s Circus features five clowns with painted faces, flouncy collars and polka-dot tights posed in exaggerated pantomime gestures.
They are distinctly American — one is even decked out in the patterns of Old Glory — and their sheer size gives a hint about the scale and popularity of circuses in the era. But the Library’s many European posters also showcase the cultural significance and artistic impacts of the medium in its early heyday.
The elegant work of 19th-century French artist Jules Chéret, for example, showcases women at play and leisure, demonstrating their more liberated roles in the Paris of the Belle Époque. Among the Library’s assorted Chéret posters, women in ornate and sometimes sensual fashions are depicted riding bikes, ice skating or reading the newspaper. The characters in Chéret’s posters, who became known as Chérettes, embodied a whole new ethos of womanhood — vivacious and cosmopolitan.
Other artists, too, used posters to push the bounds of old social mores. In one print from painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a courtesan in a red dress plants a bold kiss on an older gentleman over dinner. The poster served double duty as the cover of a book from author Victor Joze, although it has since far surpassed the novel in fame.
The figures in Ethel Reed’s posters are mysterious and darkly alluring, such as the sly red-haired woman who holds a vivid poppy on the otherwise entirely black book cover for José Echegaray’s “Folly or Saintliness.”
Another often-reproduced example from Henri Privat-Livemont shows a woman in diaphanous fabrics as she raises a glass of absinthe in practically spiritual awe. Billowing curlicues dance in the background, the intoxicating terrain of the “Green Fairy.”
Revelry and entertainment are common themes in poster art spanning the ages. In the Library’s collection of works from Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, plays and concerts are advertised like scenes in an elaborate painting.
The poster for a performance of the play “Lorenzaccio” features opulent golden lines and delicately detailed borders surrounding a snarling green dragon as it peers down at the titular character, lost in thought. Mucha’s poster for the play “La Dame aux Camélias” is equally sumptuous, presenting an ethereal lady Camille against a background glittering with silver stars.
With such magnificent images posted in public spaces, it wasn’t uncommon for Mucha’s posters, and those of his contemporaries, to routinely be stolen by art lovers. Decades later, psychedelic poster art promoting rock-and-roll concerts would become equally covetable for collectors.
The Library’s collection of works from Wes Wilson, dubbed the father of the 1960s rock poster, flaunt swirls of eyepopping neon text contrasted against dramatic human figures. One poster for a concert featuring the Grateful Dead and Otis Rush & His Chicago Blues Band depicts a woman’s face in profile, the names of the event’s performers spiraling through her hair in a trippy kaleidoscope of pink and seafoam blue.
Another Wilson poster for a concert in San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium shows two distinct panels (similar to a technique used by Mucha). On one side, Wilson’s characteristic melting font style lists the names of the bands. The other depicts a regal woman in a pharaoh’s striped headdress surrounded by Egyptian-style motifs.
The Library’s posters aren’t all fun and games, though. Between the liberated merrymaking of the Belle Époque and the experimental decadence of the Swinging Sixties were two world wars that shook the soul of the planet.
Strife and survival were foremost in people’s minds, and governments and revolutionary causes alike seized on the atmosphere to capture the public’s attention — all through the powerful art of the poster.
The Library holds an original World War I poster of British Secretary of State for War Earl Kitchener pointing straight at the reader. The text reads, “Your country needs you.” It was this image that inspired James Montgomery Flagg’s definitive portrait of a white goateed Uncle Sam a few years later. The Library’s collection contains two prints of Flagg’s legendary “I want you for the U.S. Army” poster, as well as several other reproductions.
In one, a U.S. Marine points at you. In another, a stern Statue of Liberty invokes the reader to buy war bonds. There’s a pointing poster of a Black Uncle Sam, and even an anti-war poster in which a bandaged version of Flagg’s Sam extends an open hand pleading, “I want out.”
The Library’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster hardly needs description — it’s become a wildly popular motif since its rediscovery in 2000, adorning everything from T-shirts and mugs to phone cases and baby onesies.
Russian and Soviet propaganda posters, too, are widely known for their distinctive style, a “constructivist” technique full of hard lines and abstract shapes. In a famed 1920 example from the artist El Lissitzky, a red triangle symbolizing the Bolsheviks wedges into a white circle representing anti-communist forces. The design has been replicated on album covers, in the sci-fi television series “Farscape” and most recently on Russian billboards promoting COVID-19 vaccination, in which the white circle now appears as a spiked coronavirus cell.
These reproductions stand as sterling examples of the cultural weight and staying power of poster imagery. While such iconic posters of the 20th century didn’t go viral as we know the phenomenon today, their creators often printed hundreds if not thousands of copies, disseminating their unique visual language far and wide. Much more than just information bulletins, posters encapsulated cultural moods and reflected shared ideas.
Dorothy Waugh’s colorful prints advertised U.S. national parks in stunningly bold designs fit for modern travelers. Japanese tourism posters spotlighted blushing cherry blossom trees against steely cityscapes and winding rivers, inviting visitors to experience a country both innovative and idyllic.
In one of the most remarkable displays of the poster’s persuasive powers, the Library’s Yanker Poster Collection contains political and social issue posters from dozens of nations between 1927 and 1980. Through their striking artwork, they call for world peace, the Equal Rights Amendment, recycling programs, union strikes, cancer screenings and political candidates of all sorts.
One poster repeats “Peace Now” in rainbow letters across its length. Another depicts a simple flower, the words “War is not healthy for children and other living things” winding through its stem. An image of a shattered globe, bursting with mud and worms, hangs in black space. At the bottom, a brief message: “Love is the answer.”
Captivating imagery alone is unlikely to bring about global change, but even the most mundane message presented in a beautiful way or shared enough times can become anchored in the mind. It’s no coincidence we still see posters everywhere, even though emails, commercials and social media ads have now crowded the terrain of public persuasion. In their flexibility and familiarity posters continue to speak to the people — to sell and evoke, convince and alarm, amuse and inspire.
Originally published by Library of Congress Magazine 12:1 (January-February 2023, 6-7) to the public domain.