Posters are indicators of cultural, political, economic, and social realities of the epochs in which they were created. They are mostly used for advertising, spreading information and public announcements. Even though the purpose of posters has not significantly changed, the use of posters and the poster design have evolved over time.
The history of poster and poster design is exciting and manifold. This article provides a short overview of the evolution of the poster from the beginning until today.
Already in the pre-Christian time, precursors of posters can be found. In ancient Rome, official announcements and legal texts were placed on white wooden panels in larger squares, thus making them accessible to the public. Although poster-like advertisement occurred in many early epochs, the invention of modern book printing in Europe in the mid-15th century is regarded as the actual outset of the poster.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, traders, showmen and jugglers occasionally used posters consisting of text and pictures to draw attention to their range of goods and shows. With the continuous further development of the printing processes, it was later possible to produce and distribute posters in an ever-increasing number of copies.
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity: until today the slogan is inextricably linked to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and led to further revolutions and new political and social trends throughout Europe. During this time, the poster became increasingly important, which represents the first milestone in the history of the poster.
After the end of the revolution in 1799, people’s lives were dominated by the pursuit of money, profit and turnover. Therefore, commercial posters and advertisements were increasingly used to promote products and services. The depicted goods should be associated with positive events and characteristics by the viewers, triggering a desire to buy from the potential buyers. Please also refer to this article for more information about the perception of posters, the AIDA formula, and effective poster design.
While privileged classes were established in the bourgeoisie, millions of people still had a meagre existence in need and hunger. So-called sandwiches, men who were hired as poster holders and regarded as movable walls, carried and presented posters on their chest and back. Their intentionally ridiculous looking coats, hats or caps should make strollers additionally aware of the posters they were wearing. You can see the same form of advertising in today’s cities, mostly for restaurant, bar and bicycle rental services advertisement, etc.
Sandwich man in France (history) and New York (today)
In Germany, the history of the poster was less sweeping at that time, as political posters were considerably restricted by the authorities and were partly banned altogether after 1848. Only advertising posters were allowed. In 1854, Ernst Liftfass was granted the right to place posters in public by a contract he concluded with the Berlin police commissioner. In the following year he erected his first advertising pillar, today referred to as “Litfasssäule” in German speaking countries.
Old advertising pillar referred to as “Litfasssäule” in downtown Copenhagen
Invention of lithography
The invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in 1798 resulted in completely new possibilities for the mass production of posters.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the design and production of posters was firmly in the hands of printers and lithographers, but they were increasingly overtaxed by the ever-increasing demands placed on the quality and quantity of posters. More and more artists began with poster design, first in England and then in France. Jules Chéret (1836-1932), who was both a trained lithographer and artist, is regarded as a pioneer of poster art.
In 1858, he received his first prominent poster commission: the announcement of the famous opera “Orpheus in the Underworld”.
“Orphée aux Enfers”, Jules Chéret, 1858
Jules Chéret’s posters
In 1866, Chéret opened his own lithographic institute. He had a special printing press imported from England to France, with which it was possible to print large-format posters of up to 76 x 57.7 inches or 193 x 144 cm. In addition, he took the development of the poster a significant step further by simplifying the previously rather burdensome printing process: while up to 25 stones were needed to print color lithographs so far, he reduced the number of stones to five and later to three: Usually one for black, one for red and a third with two colors for printing a graduated background. In addition, Chéret drew the posters directly on the lithographic stone. By combining text and image in a completely new way, he also created a new poster style. While the posters were dominated by images, Chéret’s text message had the same importance as the illustration. Both were inextricably linked in their design, and Chéret increasingly made the words an illustration and important part of the poster designs.
Over the course of about 40 years, the artist, who was named as the “creator of a gallery on the street” by the people, created almost 1,200 posters for many different clients. In addition to the cleverly integrated texts, a young, attractive, rather lightly dressed woman was almost always the central theme of his posters. This was very well received by the French audience.
Jardin de Paris, Jules Chéret, 1897
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, and Eugène Grasset
The now simpler printing process allowed artists without in-depth printing knowledge to create posters. Their artistic quality was even higher than that of the pioneer Chéret. Among the most famous artists were Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923), and Eugène Grasset (1845-1917).
Toulouse-Lautrec also used a few colored stones in yellow, red and blue only. His posters on large-format sheets were well accentuated by strong contrasts and were extremely attractive. Lautrec often captured the merry, hectic and voluptuous life around Montmartre – the center of Parisian nightlife.
Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891, Ambassadeurs, 1892, Divan Japonais, 1893, all Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Lautrec’s friend, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, as a strong opponent of social injustice in his motives, devoted himself above all to the impoverished marginal groups of society. His works often depict the life of the little people, the misery of beggars, exhausted workers, neglected street children and prostitutes. In addition, Steinlen was a tireless cat painter and repeatedly portrayed the animal in a wide range of variations.
Cat on a Cushion, 1909, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen
At the turn of the century, German posters often featured decorative art nouveau motifs. Nevertheless, France was once again regarded as the early center of poster art. The posters of the artist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) are seen as the highlight. His best-known work, an event poster for the play “Gismonda”, commissioned by the then best-known western actress Sarah Bernhardt, made him one of the most sought-after Art Nouveau poster artists. All publicly hung copies of the poster were stolen by art lovers within a short period of time.
La Dame aux camélias, Alfons Mucha, 1896
The industrialization in the leading economies led to new forms of culture, entertainment and consumption. In the 1890s, posters were judged according to the criteria of free art. Many art dealers started specializing in posters and the history of the poster was explored in detail for the first time.
The phase of the artist poster was followed by mass commercial advertising of the newly created branded products from a wide variety of sectors. In 1913, Germany ranked second behind the USA in terms of world industrial production and second behind Great Britain in terms of world trade. This also meant better living conditions and a greater ability and willingness to consume for much of the population.
The sumptuous Art Nouveau ornaments were left behind. Instead, the functionality of the posters became relevant instead. Simple structures came to the fore. This also influenced the “German poster style”, which became known in Germany and Switzerland as the “Sachplakat”. A typical feature was the reduction of the poster motif to the two most important elements: the product and the brand name.
Herbert Leupin, Bell Sausage, 1939
With the beginning of the First World War, the poster was heavily used for political propaganda, especially by the Allies. Numerous posters were posted to recruit soldiers, to advance armament production and to depict the evil enemy. In Germany, political propaganda had not been permitted until 1914. However, it found its way to the public eye via the poster and became normal in Germany.
After poster production almost came to a standstill in Germany during the First World War – except for propaganda purposes – it began to flourish again during the Weimar Republic. The profession of poster designer has been given firmer structures: professional associations have emerged, and trade journals have been launched.
Advertising was strongly influenced by the art currents of Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism and Expressionism at that time. Thus, the followers of Dadaism, which was founded in Zurich, rejected bourgeois ideals and “conventional” art and parodied them in their poster designs.
The artists’ associations De Stijl, founded in the Netherlands in 1917, and Bauhaus, founded in Weimar in 1919, are also important for the history of the poster. Almost at the same time, they were looking for an aesthetic whose principles could be applied to all areas of design. They advocated geometric-abstract, reduced forms of representation and a purism limited to functionality. The most influential poster designers for the Bauhaus style are Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) and Joost Schmidt (1893-1948).
Bauhaus Ausstellung, Herbert Bayer, 1923
In parallel to the Bauhaus design, the formal language of Art Deco emerged. It also covered other areas of life, such as architecture. Forms were simplified just like the other art styles that emerged at the same time, but less rigorously as compared to the Bauhaus style.
The Art Deco style was influenced by the art of Persia, Egypt and Central Africa and a “pleasing elegance” arose. The center of Art Deco and the driving force behind it was the French capital Paris. In the so-called “roaring twenties”, people created illusions of a better future to get over the physical exhaustion that the war had left behind.
Dancing was one of the most popular pleasures in the years between the First and Second World Wars, with Tango and Foxtrot became popular in Europe. The American influence on the European population grew and it became increasingly clear that advertising changed people’s behavior by showing them new standards and models.
Posters were the medium par excellence for spreading new trends, and the focus was always on attractive human models that encouraged imitation.
During the Second World War, the poster was again used primarily for political propaganda purposes. The Reich Ministry for Propaganda attributed special importance to the poster in Germany for influencing the population. Corresponding studies served to substantiate this theory.
With the outbreak of the war in 1939, the appearance of the poster also became brutal. Towards the end of the war, special “persistence propaganda” called for the continuation and perseverance. Many poster designers and collectors were victims of persecution during the Nazi era or were snatched from their life’s work.
Following the Second World War, political billboard advertising continued to follow the Weimar era for the time being, albeit less aggressively. The division of Germany and Europe, the contrasting development in the eastern and western countries, also made it on the posters. While there were no restrictions at first, poster design in the East was increasingly affected by the dictated art of socialist realism. Posters should be designed rather in restrained colors, have “foliage-filling pictorial inventions” and contain texts in clear language. From 1970 onwards, advertising for goods was completely discontinued due to insufficient supply.
In the West, the variety of posters followed the design of the 1920s. The advertising posters experienced a revival, especially because of the economic miracle from the 1950s onwards. Rock’ n’ Roll, tube jeans, petticoats, Elvis hair and James Dean still stand for the great joie de vivre of youth and everyday culture in the 1950s.
Posters advertised goods for sale, promoted clubs and destinations. As the goods became affordable for the working class, the layout of the advertising posters changed. The aim was to reach the largest possible target group. The posters were simplified and stylized – the products should speak for themselves.
As a result of the spread of the mass media radio, press and finally television, the importance of political posters diminished, and the entire advertising market began to move. Many people mistakenly assumed that this would also mean the end of the poster.
In the 1960s, the younger generation began to reject society’s new habits, strong consumption and the associated negative environmental consequences. Students rebelled against the war, the establishment, the industrial society and the fact that goods and profits were placed above the welfare of people and the environment. The advertising reflected this growing unrest. Posters that supported various political and social purposes, or drew attention to problems, were created. Among other things, there were posters against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam war, environmental pollution and overpopulation.
The glorified news of the revolution in countries such as China and Cuba inspired the youth of the 1960s. Posters by Fidel Castro and especially Che Guevara were as popular as the posters of mainstream pop singers. The youth identified itself with the passionate hero Che, who had sacrificed his life to his cause.
Advertising posters adapted more and more and praised products that appealed to the attitude of young people. Psychedelic posters also drew on the design elements of Art Nouveau.
In the 1970s, posters started to become interesting for the art market. Starting from New York and Paris, auction houses began to trade posters. The first pure poster auction took place in 1983 in Munich. Today, physical as well as online poster auctions are regularly held and prices for well-known posters skyrocketed over the last decade.
There is no dominant direction of poster design today, but rather short-lived trends following each other. In Germany, the German Advertising Council, as an authority since 1972, ensures that the numerous laws are complied with and that consumers do not encounter unacceptable advertising. This mainly applies to misleading, harassing or advertising statements that endanger young people.
Despite the increasing digitalization, posters today have a firm place in our advertising material structure and are (luckily) still considered to be one of the most effective forms of advertising.
The possibilities for using the poster have greatly expanded. Thanks to backlighting, posters can now also be seen at night, advertising pillars can partly rotate, and huge mega-light posters alternately display large posters.
Collecting posters is for some a popular, though also expensive, hobby or a money-making profession. The Museum of Design in Zurich has one of the world’s most comprehensive poster collections. The archive contains over 330,000 Swiss and international posters.
The most comprehensive collection of poster galleries, dealers and collectors can be found on aproposter.com. Enjoy exploring the world’s best poster galleries featuring posters with the most iconic poster designs.
(Source: Marlene, https://www.diedruckerei.de/magazin/die-geschichte-des-plakats, with further references)