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.
The Science Behind Pixar exhibition showcases the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts used by the artists and computer scientists who help bring Pixar’s award-winning films to the big screen.
Special Exhibits at The Henry Ford
Take a look at some of our resource roundups for past exhibits and special events at The Henry Ford: