On what would have been Larry Kramer's 86th birthday, we look at the history of the iconic Silence = Death poster and the pioneering ACT UP organization—the political action group that Kramer catalyzed. Four decades into the AIDS crisis, and during this year's Pride Month celebrations, The Henry Ford recognizes the tireless advocates who have fought and continue to fight, refusing to stay silent, for equitable treatment for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published an article that would send shockwaves through the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article, which appeared not on the first page, but on page A20, reported the death of eight individuals, and that the cause of the outbreak was unknown. For LGBTQ+ individuals living in the affected areas, the article was more a confirmation of their fears than new information. And for many heterosexual people, it sparked trepidation and deepened discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Other smaller publications had published articles in the months preceding July 1981, and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), documented early cases of the epidemic in June. In the gay community, friends and loved ones were getting sick and many were dying. The alarm bell had been rung.
The Silence = Death Collective designed this poster prior to the formation of the ACT UP organization, but transferred ownership to ACT UP in 1987. / THF179775
Silence = Death
The Silence = Death poster has come to symbolize the early fight against the AIDS epidemic. It was borne of deep grief and an unrelenting desire for action. One evening in late 1985, after the loss of his partner from AIDS in November 1984, Avram Finkelstein met with Jorge Socarras and Oliver Johnston in a New York City diner to catch up. Although the AIDS epidemic was a constant, tumultuous undercurrent in the gay community in the mid-1980s, the topic was often coded or avoided. That night, Finkelstein recalls, AIDS was all the men discussed, which he found “exhilarating after so many years of secrecy.” They decided to form a collective, each agreeing to bring one additional person to their next meeting. Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard joined. These six men met regularly to discuss the epidemic’s impact on their lives—and to process, rage, mourn, and, eventually, strategize. Finkelstein illustrates these meetings in his book After Silence: A History of AIDS through Its Images: “There were animated conversations, always, and there was often hilarity. We were almost never mean, but we frequently fought. There was shouting, there was fist pounding, and occasionally tears…. Fear may have been the canvas for our conversations. But anger was definitely the paint.”
These conversations turned to action. Each of the men had an artistic background—the group was comprised of art directors, graphic designers, and a musician. They decided to create a political poster, hoping to inspire action from the community’s fear. According to Finkelstein, “the poster needed to simultaneously address two distinctly different audiences, with a bifurcated goal: to stimulate political organizing in the lesbian and gay community, and to simultaneously imply to anyone outside the community that we were already fully mobilized.” The group spent six months designing the poster—debating everything from the background color to the text before deploying the poster all over Manhattan by March of 1987.
The poster’s central graphic element is a pink triangle. It references and reclaims the pink triangle patches on concentration camp uniforms that homosexual men were forced to wear by the Nazi regime during World War II (lesbian women were given a black triangle). The pink triangles subjected the men to added brutality. The poster’s triangle is inverted, however, from the one used during the Holocaust. This was initially a mistake. Chris Lione had recently been to the Dachau concentration camp and recalled that the pink triangle he saw on exhibit pointed upward. However, the collective embraced the accident once it was discovered, reasoning that the inverted triangle was “superimposing an activist stance by borrowing the ‘power’ intonations of the upwards triangle in New Age spirituality.” The expansive black background created a meditative negative space that further emphasized the bright pink triangle and the white text below.
The tagline for the poster—“SILENCE = DEATH”—was quickly developed. It also soon became the name of the men’s group: the Silence = Death Collective. The equation references the deafening silence of the public and government-at-large—the New York Times didn’t give the AIDS crisis front-page coverage until 1983; President Ronald Reagan’s administration made light of the epidemic in its early years (the administration’s press secretary jokingly referred to the epidemic as the “gay plague” in 1982); and President Reagan didn’t address the AIDS epidemic publicly until September of 1985. The tagline also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, whose uncomfortable silence came at ultimate risk. Without discussion, education, and action about the AIDS crisis, many more people would die. By the end of 1987, over 47,000 people had already died of AIDS. Silence—quite literally—equaled death.
Artist and activist Keith Haring designed this poster, titled “IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH Fight AIDS ACT UP,” in 1989 for the ACT UP organization. It utilizes the “Silence = Death” tagline and the inverted pink triangle symbol initially created by the Silence=Death Collective. / THF179776
The Formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
At almost the same time that the Silence = Death Collective’s poster began appearing around Manhattan, playwright and activist Larry Kramer gave a legendary lecture at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987. Kramer famously began this speech by telling the crowd that half of them would be dead within the year (due to the AIDS epidemic). He repeatedly asked the crowd “What are you going to do about it!?!” Kramer’s rage and urgency pushed the crowd towards actionable steps to combat the AIDS crisis. Within days, a group met that would become the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—or ACT UP. Around 300 people attended that first meeting, including some of the members of the Silence = Death Collective.
ACT UP quickly mobilized and became the political action group that many in the LGBTQ+ community—including the Silence = Death Collective—had envisioned. ACT UP was (and still is) “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” On March 24, 1987, just two weeks after Larry Kramer’s lecture, the group held its first “action” when it protested pharmaceutical price-gouging of AIDS medication on Wall Street. Kramer had published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before, titled “The FDA’s Callous Response to AIDS,” which helped contextualize ACT UP’s protest in the media. ACT UP and its many chapters, subcommittees, and affinity groups kept pressure on the government for its inaction in the AIDS epidemic by frequently staging creative acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
Over the last four decades, AIDS has taken the lives of men, women, and children, without regard to sexual orientation or race. However, the LGBTQ+ community has suffered the bulk of misinformation and discrimination related to the disease and done the difficult work to push direct action to end the AIDS crisis. The work of activists like the Silence = Death Collective, the members of ACT UP, and many others made treatment available to more people and curbed the spread of the disease. ACT UP broadened its mission to the eradication of AIDS at the global level and remains an active organization.
The Henry Ford acquires a poster portfolio as a way to document one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history
About half of the Signal-Return solidarity posters acquired by The Henry Ford.
“Justice Can’t Wait,” “Make Good Trouble,” “No Justice No Peace.” These are just a few of the messages that appear in a collection of letterpress posters recently acquired from Signal-Return printshop by The Henry Ford. In the history of well-designed posters, brevity of words and a strong visual impact work together to communicate messages at a glance. Boldly capitalized, imprinted in flat black ink on brown or white chipboard by the embossing strike of a printing press—these posters are meant to generate a feeling of urgency.
In early June 2020, Detroit’s nonprofit letterpress organization Signal-Return responded to the civil unrest sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others by producing free protest posters. The project was undertaken in solidarity with the principles behind the Black Lives Matter movement, with the intent that the posters would be carried by supporters in protests.
The remainder of the Signal-Return solidarity posters acquired by The Henry Ford.
Using social media to spread the word about their project, Signal-Return offered to create small batches of custom posters for the metro Detroit community, free of charge. As stated in their announcement, “The printing press has been, since its invention, a powerful tool of protest and an agent of change. Let us provide posters to aid in this effort.” Each recipient was asked to submit a concise five-word message through an online form. A few days later, the posters were ready for pickup “social distance style” across the roped-off front entry of the printshop. Many of these posters were visible throughout Detroit in the summer of 2020 at protests and taped to store windows, streetlight poles and freeway overpasses.
Signal-Return Letterpress Shop, Detroit, Michigan, June 2020 / THF610910
By September 2020, Signal-Return’s director, Lynne Avadenka, counted a total of 168 individual requests. Some requests repeated popular protest language of the day, while others were entirely unique and personal. Thanks to Signal-Return’s donation, The Henry Ford has acquired a portfolio of 44 examples as a way to document one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States. The method by which they were acquired—called “rapid response collecting” by museum professionals—allows museums to collect stories of current events and major moments in history as they unfold.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford. This story was originally published in the January–May 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine, available on Issuu.
In the digital age, it’s easy to keep up with your favorite bands—you might sign up for their email list, follow them on social media, or get text alerts on your phone. In any of these cases, you’ll probably know when they’re coming to your town to perform.
In the mid-20th century, though, posters were a way to show potential fans which acts would be performing, where, and when. Bright colors, bold graphics, and dramatic fonts caught the attention of passers-by in cities where dozens of venues competed for audiences.
With the 50th anniversary of the Summer Of Love just a few months away, we’ve just digitized a few great examples of rock posters dating between 1969 and 1971, including this poster advertising Chuck Berry, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Boz Scaggs at Pepperland in San Rafael, California, in 1970.
Update: This post was originally written on March 13, 2017, only a few days before Chuck Berry’s death at the age of 90. I obviously had no foreknowledge of that event to come, but this poster, out of all the ones we digitized, caught my eye because Mr. Berry holds such a large place in our collective memory, and is an artist I deeply respect and enjoy. I’m glad that The Henry Ford is able to preserve and share some of his quintessentially American legacy. Hail, hail, Chuck Berry—may you rest in peace and your music live on. –Ellice Engdahl, 3/20/17 Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.
We bring hundreds to thousands of new artifacts into our collection every year, and many of those enter our digitization stream so visitors can access them online. We’ve just digitized a series of posters that came into the collection in September 2016.
Created around 1960 by the Ford Motor Company Research and Information Department, the educational works depict a number of ways humans have measured length, including the fathom, and how these measurements have increased in precision over time.
If you've kept an eye on our Flex Gallery in Henry Ford Museum the past few weeks you've likely seen the "coming soon" signage for our latest exhibit, "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power." In just a few days the exhibit, presented to us from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will open to the public and we couldn't be more excited. With a diverse collection of artists and genres, a visit to "Women Who Rock" will surely inspire you to flip through your collection of records, rummage through a stack of mixtapes or have your scrolling through your favorite playlists.
I asked Jeanine Head Miller, our curator of domestic life, to speak to two concert posters in our digital collections. Both created by concert poster artist Mark Arminski in the 1990s, the posters' artwork captures important moments in both popular culture and the musicians' lives.
Singer Sarah McLachlan was frustrated by conventional wisdom—concert promoters and radio stations had long refused to feature two female musicians in a row. McLachlan took action, organizing a concert tour and traveling music festival called Lilith Fair (poster picture above). Featuring only female artists and female-led bands--including well-known performers and emerging artists--the hugely successful Lilith Fair took place the summers of 1997 through 1999.
Patti Smith was one of the pioneers of hard-edged punk rock in the 1970s. In 1995, when she performed this concert, Smith was reentering the music scene after the unexpected death of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Patti Smith was on the cusp of artistic rebirth—fueled by her ability to reshape her music to speak to new generations.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power is at Henry Ford Museum May 17-August 17, 2014.
World War II Poster, "Free a Man to Fight," 1943. Made by the artist Leslie Darrell Ragan (1897-1972) and published by the Brett Lithographing Co. for the New York Central Railroad. (ID THF154861 / 2013.49.1 )
Women have always worked and worked hard. But how and where has changed over time. During the 19th century, the growing middle class in America promoted the ideal of a woman's primary work being in the home. This viewpoint promoted a woman's primary role at home to make it a haven for her husband from the evils of the outside industrial world and a place to rear civilized children. This ideal of women's place continued throughout much of the 20th century – except when the U.S. faced global wars. I think that looking at posters in our collection from World Wars I and II provides a fascinating view of women's changing roles during these all-out national defense efforts.
A colleague's insightful blog post from March 19, 2012, focuses on the famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster and many photographs of women factory workers at Ford Motor Company during the 1940s.
The first poster (above), "Free a Man to Fight," shows a woman worker not in a factory but in a railroad's maintenance roundhouse. She is lubricating a locomotive wheel, previously a man's occupation. It is part of the early 1940s home front effort encouraging women to join the work force to replace men serving in the armed forces. New York Central Railroad hired the artist Leslie D. Ragan to make the poster artwork. He is the same artist the railroad company used for their well-known posters in the 1920s and 1930s featuring locomotives and travel destinations.
World War I Poster, "For Every Fighter, a Woman Worker," circa 1918. Made by the artist Adolph Treidler (1886-1981) and printed by the American Lithographic Company for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF81764 / 53.5.406.1).
The next poster, "For Every Fighter a Woman Worker," shows a young woman in a typical factory work outfit from the First World War. She symbolically holds a biplane and a bomb, standing in front of a large blue triangle. In 1914 the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) was one of a group of organizations in the U.S. that formed the United War Work Campaign, Inc. This campaign recruited women to serve in industry, government and agriculture positions. The Y.W.C.A. supported the war work in diverse ways, including opening and maintaining many "Blue Triangle" houses, which provided safe and morally upright places for young working women to gather for rest and recreation.
World War I Poster, "Back Our Girls Over There," circa 1918. Artwork by Clarence F. Underwood and printed in the United States for the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association. (ID THF112607 / 22.214.171.124).
Another poster of the United War Work Campaign and the Young Women's Christian Association, this features a young woman in uniform working a telephone switchboard. The background includes marching soldiers through a window. The Y.W.C.A. helped to recruit and sustain women working for the government in military jobs in the U.S. and abroad during World War I.
World War II Poster, "Equipment Is Precious!" 1943. Made by the artist B. Rig and printed by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, D.C. (ID THF111484 / 89.60.5).
During World War II many women served in offices. This U.S. government poster made in 1943 features a young woman cleaning her typewriter in front of an outline of a combat soldier. The text below, pointedly asked women office workers to "Remember his needs. Your care of office equipment will save vital materials and help him win."
World War II Poster, "You, Too, Are Needed in a War Job! Work in a Food Processing Plant," 1945. Artwork by Frank Bensing (1893-1983) and printed by the United States Government Printing Office for the United States War Manpower Commission, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108510 / 94.5.4).
While many posters focus on harnessing youthful energy for the war effort, the reality during World War II was a collaborative endeavor by all Americans. This poster shows one of the ways mature women could help by working the conveyor line in a food processing plant.
World War I Poster, "The Girl on the Land Serves the Nation's Need," circa 1917. Made by artist Edward Penfield (1866-1925) and printed by United States Printing & Lithograph Company, New York, New York. (ID THF112812 / 89.0.565.88).
Many young men left farms to serve in the military during World War I. An acute labor shortage soon ensued and to help farmers continue producing vital food, the Y.W.C.A. Land Service Committee recruited young women to work on the farms. This poster depicts "farmerettes" wearing uniforms walking next to a team of horses while one carries a rake and another a basket of vegetables. Often working with young women from the cities, the Y.W.C.A. and other groups like the Farm and Garden Association provided these young women with training in agricultural skills.
World War II Poster, "Call to Farms. Join in the U.S. Crop Corps," circa 1943. Artwork by John Vickery (1906-1983) for the United States Crop Corps, Washington, D.C. (ID THF108507 / 94.5.1).
During the Second World War, an agricultural labor shortage again developed. The government formed the U.S. Crop Corps to recruit and train young women from the cities to replace the men called to military service. This poster shows a young woman driving a tractor through a farm field, pausing to turn and give the "V for Victory" sign. The government printed thousands of posters and provided a space at the bottom for use by local groups. This poster has a handwritten note in red pencil following the printed "Enlist Today" by the "Junior Board of Commerce - Philadelphia."
World War I Poster, "Corn, the Food of the Nation," 1918. Made by the artist Lloyd Harrison and printed by Harrison Landauer for the United States Food Administration. (ID THF62409 / 126.96.36.199).
Even with the successful recruiting of young women to work on the farm, another challenge during wartime is inevitably food shortages. During the First World War "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" became campaigns of the United States Food Administration seeking voluntary changes in the eating habits of Americans. The mainstay of many a woman's work continued to be as food shopper and cook for her family. This poster from 1918 shows a woman cooking muffins and pancakes made from corn products like corn meal, grits and hominy. It was a challenge substituting corn for wheat and the government used this poster to encourage women to do this by promoting corn as "appetizing, nourishing, economical."
Our collection of world war posters from the 1910s and 1940s features women contributing to the war effort in so many different ways. I think it is illuminating to see the variety of jobs that the poster artists chose to help rally women for the national effort during these wars.
By Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford, with much thanks to the catalogers of our hundreds of world war posters, especially Jan Hiatt, Marian Pickl and Carol Wright.
I have a long-standing fascination with large advertising posters. The collections of The Henry Ford include hundreds of these colorful graphics. As I study them I always wonder about their original purpose.
It starts in the nineteenth century when printers developed a lithograph method that produced brightly colored posters. Lithography, invented around 1798, is a process of printing from a flat surface with a greasy image holding the ink and a wet blank area resisting the ink. It originally produced a monochrome print of a dark image on light paper. In the 1840s printers experimented with using different ink colors and multiple printing surfaces to make chromatic images on one sheet of paper.
Manufacturers and companies quickly adopted the colorful new poster style to promote their goods and services. The posters were glued to building walls and fences, and hung in store displays where they readily attracted the attention of passersby. Companies hired printers who worked with artists to create designs to advertise the products.
This early poster's design, above, is in the style of American romantic landscape paintings of the time. Advertising the Buckeye brand of agricultural equipment manufactured by Aultman, Miller & Company of Akron, Ohio, it exemplifies an American ideal of the machine in the garden. The artist, F. Crow, made this image for the printer, White & Brayley of Buffalo, New York, about 1875. It probably hung in the office of a local equipment distributor where it offered visitors the pleasure of an appealing rural scene.
This next poster promotes sewing machines made by the Dauntless Manufacturing Company of Norwalk, Ohio, about 1885. The figure is Columbia, a feminine personification of the United States. A complex and detailed image, it surely captured observers' attention and deserved a pause for a long look.
This delightful image of four boys eating watermelon epitomizes a summer’s harvest. The attention-grabbing subject matter likely helped to sell the seeds grown by D.M. Ferry & Company of Detroit, Mich. Distributed nationally, the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company of New York, NY, printed the poster in 1898.
A complex scene including a seemingly ordinary dining table includes symbolic personalities to gain attention for this unusual food combination of wheat and celery. Columbia, appearing again, serves Uncle Sam and a robust young woman in this poster for Dr. Price’s healthy food products. The U.S. Lithograph Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and New York, NY, made this “Russell-Morgan Print” about 1900-1905.
Over a century ago, changes were taking place in America that made national selling of products advantageous, and manufacturers sought to capture attention with catchy brands and appealing images. Changes in milling of grain lengthened the shelf life so storekeepers far from the original mill were sure to have a good product to sell, and the extensive railroad system allowed rapid and consistent delivery.
The team of racing horses coming toward the viewer in the Ben-Hur poster certainly gives a sense of drama. It may be hard to connect the image to the wheat flour product, but the arresting image was meant to attract the attention of potential buyers walking along a town’s street. The Royal Milling Company of Minneapolis, Minn., and Great Falls, Mont., had this colorful poster printed in the early 1900s. At this time, Ben-Hur was a popular motif because the theatrical producers Klaw & Erlanger had made a play in 1899 based on the best-selling American novel written by Lew Wallace in 1880.
Like the Ben-Hur poster of the same era, this view of a Scotsman in his Highland kilt gives a sense of adventure and surely attracted the attention of potential buyers on foot. This colorful poster was printed in 1899 with the catchy slogan "Scotch Oats for Brain and Brawn." At this time, stories about the medieval Scottish fight for independence, like Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, were popular in the United States.
This poster of the Wright brothers' Model B biplane has instant appeal. It happens to advertise the aerial entertainment services of the Patterson Aviators of Detroit in the 1910s. I am particularly struck by the fact that in less than ten years, entrepreneurs were using the fruit of Wilbur and Orville Wright's invention begun with their first successful flight in 1903. It grew from an impossible dream to a part of our everyday life. Daredevil fliers in the 1910s and 1920s, also called barnstormers, showed people the possibility of flight by creating high-risk, exciting spectacles soaring through the sky. Crowds flocked to numerous public events like circuses, county fairs, and air shows, eagerly shelling out their hard-earned money simply for the privilege of watching these high-flying acrobatics.
During the First World War, artists widely used an innovative advertising technique for posters that moved away from a factual depiction of a product’s material or event’s subject to an emphasis on appealing to the viewer’s emotions. On the surface, this poster promotes American citizens growing food in their home garden so the farmers’ produce could feed U.S. soldiers training and fighting the war in Europe. The emotional appeal is connecting the effort of home food gardening to patriotic sacrifices akin to those of the American Revolutionary War soldiers. The artist, William McKee, used the familiar motif from the painting The Spirit of ’76, made in 1876 by Archibald M. Willard for the Centennial of the American Revolution. The poster’s title, The Spirit of ’18, reinforced this popular patriotic theme. This poster was made for the U.S. Food Administration in 1918.
This poster advertises the R& L Time Payment Plan to buy a Ford Model T Tudor Coupe. The National Bond & Investment Company probably offered this payment plan, still a novel concept, through independent Ford dealerships. This double-sided poster was designed to hang in a window and be seen from indoors and outside. Although we do not know the printer for this poster created about 1925, the artist's signature prominently appears in the lower right corner: J.W. Pondelicek.
The artist of this poster, Bob Smith, combined modern and patriotic themes of this world’s fair held near the end of the Great Depression and at the beginning of the Second World War. Promoting the New York World’s Fair theme, "The World of Tomorrow," the Grand Opening on April 30, 1939, harkened back to the country’s beginnings by celebrating the 150th anniversary of George Washington's first presidential inauguration held in New York City in 1789. The beautiful young woman portrayed in front of the world fair’s modern Trylon and Perisphere buildings wears fashionable clothes in the American patriotic colors of red, white and blue.
These posters and many more are part of our museum's online collections. We also offer quality reproductions for a selection of posters on The Henry Ford ArteHouse and The Henry Ford SM/ART Editions. These posters, eye-catching time capsules of popular design, delight and instruct us today. What are your favorites?
Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photographs and Prints, is continually fascinated with the museum’s more than 1 million historical graphics.