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 early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”
Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew.
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. /THF238502
Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. /THF239963
In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.
From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!
One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. /THF160295
At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.
This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.
The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. /THF173159, THF173165
The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.
While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Label Collection’s food labels – a collection of beautiful labels from canned food and West Coast fruit crates. While examining this collection, I was drawn to the eye-catching and artistic designs and took note of the lithographers’ signatures. A recurring name was the Schmidt Lithograph Company. Further research in our collections database revealed other items designed by this lithography firm, including seed packets and a recipe booklet. These objects help tell the story of Max Schmidt and the evolution of his successful company.
Crate Label, “Victor Vineyard Tokay Grapes,” circa 1920, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF293997
Max Schmidt was born in Germany in 1850. At the age of fourteen – not wanting to enter his family’s traditional medical practice – Schmidt set sail around the world for six years as a cabin boy, arriving in San Francisco in 1871. Speaking little to no English, Schmidt took odd jobs until he found himself working for engraving and lithography companies. These new jobs in California gave him the opportunity to hone his artistic skills.
In 1874, Schmidt ventured into a partnership with Frederick Beuhler, creating pictorial cuts for local newspapers. A “cut” refers to an image or illustration that can be reproduced through mass printing. Traditionally, this would have been done using woodcuts, but Schmidt and Beuhler utilized the new etching technique known as zincography. This process, which involved using a stylus to cut lines into a zinc metal plate, was more efficient and allowed their company to quickly become the printing plate supplier for all the San Francisco newspapers.
Crate Label, “River Lad Brand Asparagus,” 1940-1950, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF294037
In 1876, Schmidt went into business on his own, creating M. Schmidt & Company, which produced stock certificates and colored labels utilizing the process of stone lithography. This involved drawing images on soft stone, like limestone, and transferring the image from the stone to paper using a printing press. Several years later in 1883, the company was incorporated as Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company.
Crate Label, “Edna Alma Rancho Brand Grapes,” 1883-1899THF294345
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Edna Alma Rancho label THF294349
Lithographic firms often included a signature on their designs so that people would know who created them. Today, these signatures can help us date the labels in our collection. In this case, because we know the name “Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company” was used from 1883--1899, we know the label was created within that date range.
With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, more produce than ever before was being shipped across the country to eastern markets. Competition among growers and packing companies increased the necessity for labels, which aided in product and brand identification. In the 1870s and 1880s, the lithography industry in California swelled to meet the demand for labels. Los Angeles and San Francisco – where Schmidt’s company emerged as an industry leader – became major hubs for lithography.
Can Label, “Lynx Brand Puget Sound Salmon,” 1880-1900 THF109742
Just as his business was flourishing, Max Schmidt experienced a series of setbacks that could have very easily been the end of his lithography business. An unfortunate string of fires destroyed his factory in 1884 and again in 1886. Despite his misfortune, Max Schmidt – and his company’s reputation – persevered to continue producing high-quality commercial lithographs, including labels for fruit crates, canned fruits and vegetables, and canned salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
The turn of the century saw a trend towards consolidation of the lithography industry. Out of the dozens of lithograph companies that had opened to meet the demand for labels and other commercial lithographs, several larger companies emerged as the leaders. By this time, Schmidt’s company was one of the most well-known in the industry. Following the consolidation trend, Schmidt acquired San Francisco-based Dickman-Jones and the label department from H. S. Crocker to form the Mutual Label & Lithographic Company in 1899. Throughout the early 1900s, the Los Angeles-based firms of Western Lithograph Company and Los Angeles Lithographic Company were also associated with Mutual, which quickly became a powerhouse in the industry.
Title page for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Edition recipe booklet for “How to Eat Canned Salmon,” designed by Mutual Label & Lithographic Company THF294360
The 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that hit San Francisco was devastating to the San Francisco lithography industry. Many companies lost all label designs, production equipment, and business records. Schmidt’s company was completely destroyed, but his previous financial success allowed him to quickly rebuild where other lithographers were not so lucky. When the new building opened in 1907, the Mutual name was replaced with Schmidt Lithograph Company, which remained the name of the business for the next six decades.
Stock Crate Label for an Unknown Brand of Asparagus, 1906-1966 THF293101
A common product for lithography companies was the stock label, like this one produced by the Schmidt Lithograph Company. These labels were void of brand identification so that it could be customized for any company. This was often a cost-efficient option for growers and packing houses.
Throughout the 1900s, the Schmidt Lithograph Company experienced tremendous success. Schmidt was a showman with a kind disposition, leading to great working relationships with the firm’s clients and employees. His success enabled the company to expand, establishing offices and factories in Florida, Texas, Honolulu, Utah, and along the West Coast. When Max Schmidt died in 1936, his company was still one of the most successful lithography businesses in the country. In 1966, Schmidt Lithograph Company was purchased by the Stecher-Traung to create the powerful firm, Stecher-Traung-Schmidt, which remained in business until 1994.
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Santa Brand Fruits label THF294347
Lithographer signatures can tell us where a design came from. Schmidt was a major player in the lithography industry with factories across the country. The signature on this label tells us that it was created in Schmidt’s Los Angeles factory.
Dodson Seed Store “Nasturtium” Seed Packet, 1966-1983 THF294259 Lithographers produced designs for a number of items including seed packets. The signature on the bottom of this seed packet notes that its design was created by the firm of Stecher-Traung-Schmidt.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford.
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 / 18.104.22.168).
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 / 22.214.171.124).
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.