Posters: A Tool of History


p1“Labor is Bread—who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” Russia 1917-1921


WWF poster promoting marine life protection by David Guerrero

I stepped into the room, and was assaulted by images.  A darkly gothic representation of Christian Bale’s latest turn as Batman glowered down upon me, surrounded by the freakish faces of recent horror movie monsters.  Turning, I encountered Cristiano Ronaldo balancing a ball on his bent knee while smiling assuredly, and next to him LeBron James captured in action as he went in for a layup.  These sports stars appearances were rivaled by the musicians represented in turn.  In one image, a singer stood victorious and determined on a stage, while in others, scruffy music makers struck artistic poses, filled with self-importance.   The final wall was covered with illustrations focused on the dangers of global warming.  This was obviously the room of a modern teenage boy.  Before I had even examined the furnishings or other ephemera, the posters on the wall clearly told the story of the person who inhabited this space.

p3Poster portraying the effects of Global Warming, created by Ferdi Rizkiyanto


Poster detailing the effects of Global Warming on wildlife created by Karlis Dovnorovics

This is what posters do.  They mirror who we are, and not only within our private living spaces.  They also represent who we are as a people, and as a society.   Examining posters from any point in history can impart vast amounts of information as to what was happening in that country at that specific time.   Not only are they valuable tools today for informing us about the past, they also played a significant role at the time of their inception.  Throughout the history of their existence, posters have been the means for people to be informed, educated, and inspired.



Black Panther Party, USA 1963


Occupy Movement, USA 2011

Today, our familiarity with the power of posters is probably somewhat limited.  Due to the overwhelming amounts of information and images that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, it is often difficult for us to recognize the importance of a simple poster.  Thanks to advances in technology, the way we interact with the world around us has changed, and as result, we tend to take posters for granted.  Posters haven’t lost their impact; we’ve stopped paying attention to the capabilities they possess.


World War I Red Cross poster, created by Herman Roeg in 1918



American Vietnam War protest poster, created by Lorraine Schneider in 1967

All of us have encountered posters in public as advertisements or as notices to inform us of upcoming events.  Most of us remember seeing educational posters in our classrooms at school, and many of us probably had posters of our favorite sports stars or musical groups affixed to our bedroom walls when we were younger.  Some of us may have even observed posters being utilized during public gatherings or protests.  However, all of these uses of posters that we have observed in contemporary society do not adequately convey the depth of influence that a simple poster can have.



“Our Last Hope: Hitler” Germany, 1932 created by Hans Schweitzer



2008 campaign poster for Barack Obama, USA created by Shepard Fairey

The history of posters stretches back over several hundred years.  In their earliest form, posters existed as placards and bills consisting purely of text used to announce, inform, and advertise.   However, the true impact of posters began with the invention of technological processes such as lithography and later, chromolithography, which allowed them to be mass produced and gave the artist and printer more freedom to utilize colors and pictures.  By the end of the nineteenth century, use of this revolutionary printing technique had spread worldwide, and posters became an integral part of everyday life.



Russian Space Program poster, “Our triumph in space is the hymn to the Soviet country!” 



World War I poster, USA created by Carter Housh in 1917

In this “Golden Age” of posters, they were used mainly for advertisements and public announcements.  Influenced by art movements of the times, the posters created by renowned artists such as Chéret, Lautrec and Mucha were seen as pieces of art which adorned the streets.   By the turn of the century, poster artists had incorporated elements of graphic design into their works, and posters as art and advertisement became more sophisticated and widespread than ever before.


World War I Recruitment poster, 1915 artist unknown



World War I poster, USA

It was with the start of World War I that posters began to emphasize their role as purveyors of propaganda as many countries used them as a means to advertise the war.  Most posters of this time were focused on recruitment of soldiers and ensuring financial and emotional support for the campaign.  Several iconic poster images emerged from this time period.  These include the 1914 British poster featuring Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and a serving soldier, demanding enlistment.  The poster in itself is an image of Kitchener staring straight ahead with his finger pointing directly outward at the viewer and says, “Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You.  Join Your Country’s Army.  God save the King.”  What’s interesting to note is that Kitchener’s direct, unwavering stare and pointing finger seem directed straight at the viewer, regardless of the viewer’s orientation to the image.



“Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You.  Join Your Country’s Army.  God save the King.” 1914 created by Alfred Leete



“I Want You for U.S. Army” 1917, created by James Montgomery Flagg

This psychological effect of calling out the viewer was meant to evoke a feeling of guilt in those who had not yet done their part in joining the war effort. Still, as there were no conscription laws in Britain at the time, and high numbers of casualties had been reported, the poster did not have the intended effect of increasing the number of enlistments.  It did, however, have a considerable influence on other countries who borrowed the image and idea to create their own strikingly similar posters.  The most well-known example of this would be the United States recruitment poster created in 1917. Featuring the personified character of the United States called Uncle Sam, dressed in patriotic colors and striking the same pose as Lord Kitchener, it reads “I Want You for US Army.”


“Have you volunteered?” Russia, 1920 created by Dmitry Moor


“Do your whole duty!” Italy, 1917 created by Achille Luciano Mauzan

Appealing to humanity’s desire to do the right thing, protect the weak, and support the country, meant that most posters were designed to evoke an emotion that would result in action by the viewer.  Judging from the most common poster examples of this period of time, it seems that guilt was the emotion most susceptible to influence.  Take for example the British enlistment poster which features the image of a drowned woman clutching her child in her arms.  This image is based on information found in a report which circulated after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The Lusitania was a passenger ship which was also said to be carrying limited amounts of ammunition and was torpedoed by a German submarine; as a result, almost 2,000 innocent civilians were killed, including the anonymous mother and her child.   Viewing the heartrending image, accompanied by the single word, “Enlist,” was sure to make possible recruits feel guilt over their inaction when blameless and helpless civilians were paying with their lives.



World War I recruitment poster, Great Britain 1915



“For the country, my eyes!  For peace, your money.  National Consolidated Loan,” World War I, Italy

By World War II, the design and message of posters had become more sophisticated and the role of women within the war effort became more of a concern.  The use of repetitive slogans and images of collectiveness became common motifs, signaling an alteration in the type of propaganda put forth in posters.  By focusing on women as subject matter, and portraying people from all parts of the social strata making an effort for the war, a sense of community was established.  Not only did this instill a desire for participation on the part of the viewer, but it also possibly inspired a feeling of communal competition, as people wanted to do as much as, or more than, their neighbors.



World War II poster, Great Britain created by Phillip Zec



World War II poster, USA

Posters portraying women in factories, doing the work left by men who were off at war were equal to images of women canning food to ensure a supply for the winter, or of farmers toiling in fields to provide food for those keeping the homeland safe.  Citizens were portrayed as an interconnected chain; each one had a responsibility to act so the next link in the chain could complete his task as well; in this way victory was assured.  This idea can be shown in American propaganda posters featuring the slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” which was reproduced with a variety of images.  It is also apparent in the endless examples of posters from numerous countries imploring citizens to buy war bonds or contribute financially to ensure that the armed forces would be successful.


World War II poster, USA



World War II poster, USA

Posters representing world leaders were also popular at the time.  In periods of uncertainty, society is more likely to rely on the presence of a strong leader; they must have someone to believe in, and an unwavering image to depend upon.  That’s why posters featuring leaders encouraging action by citizens were considered to be particularly influential.  However, some of these posters featuring people in power and leaders of countries also had another goal in mind.  Not only did they exist to compel action and inspire trust, but they also attempted to portray leaders in a certain light.  Through effective poster campaigns, a leader of a country could be shaped and molded to feature him in a way that would encourage people to follow him.  This “cult of personality” was practiced by Stalin and Hitler and although it is traditionally more popular during periods of war, it is still utilized by many worldwide leaders today.   Not only is it meant to reinforce the trust of citizens, it is also meant to convey the almost god-like invincibility of said leader, and further reassure the public that he is the one true leader who will achieve success.


“Advance victoriously while following Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line in literature and the arts,” 1968 China by the Central Academy of Industrial Arts 



“One People, one Empire, one Leader!” Germany

Of course, the history of posters is not limited to their role in wartime.  Posters also have played a vital role in the education of citizens, not only on health and social issues, but on national and political matters as well.  Posters have been used to promote government initiatives such as literacy or hygiene.  They have imparted information on illnesses and explained political policy.  In times when news was not readily available, posters provided information in a straightforward and simplistic fashion, often bringing people knowledge that they would otherwise remained ignorant of.




World War II poster, USA


p29“Literacy is the road to Communism,” Russia 1920

This was apparent in the United States in the years following the Great Depression.  Under the terms of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration was established.  Existing from 1935 to 1943, it provided jobs for millions of previously unemployed Americans in an attempt to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure and aid in its recovery from the depression.  As part of this effort to restore the nation, attention was also given to the quality of life of its citizens, and culture and arts initiatives were created as well.  The WPA Poster division was charged with creating posters to instill awareness and inform the nation of the various works, events, and behaviors that had been conceived which would improve the lives of its citizens.  During its short life span, the Poster division employed approximately 500 poster artists who created over 35,000 poster designs and more than two million posters were produced and distributed across the country.

p30Works Progress Administration, 1935-1943 USA



Works Progress Administration poster promoting eye exams for children, 1936-37

The use of silk screen printing to produce posters which became popular in the mid-1930s also aided the WPA in its initiative and allowed for such large numbers of posters to be produced.  With the knowledge of silk screen printing, there were no limitations to what could be produced on a poster, and the ease of creation and decrease in production costs meant that posters could be made by almost anyone.  It is perhaps this fact that led to the widespread use of posters in protest movements.


2005 American poster encouraging citizens to report unusual activity



“Russia to defend USSR,” created by Valentina Kulagina in 1930

Protest posters are often highly effective as they are issue oriented and produced in response to an event that is currently taking place.  As such, their effectiveness is not typically long lasting; once the event which inspired the protest has ended, the poster quickly loses its significance.  To make their point, protest posters must provide an impact and this is done through clear imaging and the use of familiar symbols, which are often repurposed to reflect the poster’s message.


Spanish Civil War poster, 1936-1939



“We will not attack unless we are attacked. If we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”  China 1970

One example of this is the poster bearing the image of Che Guevara which was created by using a cropped photograph of Guevara.  It was first utilized in poster form in 1967, to bring awareness to Guevara’s capture and impending execution at the hands of Bolivian soldiers, and later to publicize the release of his Bolivian Diary. However, the image soon took on a life of its own.  As Guevara was often perceived as a revolutionary who fought and died for the people’s rights, many felt his image was representative of their own particular struggle.  As a result, the infamous poster of his visage was also utilized by the student’s protest movement in 1968 in France, and in anti-Vietnam war protests in America.  Today it is used as a symbol of F.A.R.C., a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerilla organization in Colombia and by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico.



“Viva Che” 1968, created by Jim Fitzpatrick


“Liberty for Angela Davis,” poster to protest her wrongful imprisonment created by Felix Beltrán in 1970


Throughout the ensuing years, posters were used for endless purposes and many other iconic images were produced which raised awareness about issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.  For example, poster campaigns were largely responsible for giving a voice to the opposition of the American war on Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, and educating the masses about the AIDS virus in the 1980s. Over time, they have been vital in bringing attention to a variety of issues and allowing numerous individuals to share their personal views with the world.  They have allowed people a voice, brought strangers together and often incited us to take action.


American Anti-war protest poster created in 1967



Liberation Support Movement poster, created by Rupert Garcia in 1981

Prior to today, much of the influence of posters was derived from the fact that there were fewer sources of information available.  People were limited in their ability to obtain knowledge, so ideas and issues portrayed in posters had a greater impact.  In today’s world, posters can be created in a matter of minutes and are easily downloaded from internet sites as well.  They are still used for advertising purposes, education, information, protest and propaganda.  However, we are more likely to view them on a computer or mobile device than affixed to the side of a building.   With technological advancements and the passage of time, the methods we use to receive and process information have changed.  This fact, coupled with the sheer amounts of information we encounter every day, means that the impact of a poster may often be lessened.

p411986 poster from Act Up, AIDS Activist movement


“Latin America is not complete if Puerto Rico is not free”

Despite this, posters still play a vital role in our society and maintain a significant influence.  This can be seen in the proliferation of posters made for the Occupy movement of 2011, which began in America and soon spread all around the world.   As a global statement against social and economical inequality, the movement was greatly aided by the use of protest posters to visualize the position of the participants and to rally them together.


Occupy Wall Street movement poster, USA 2011



Occupy Wall Street movement poster, USA 2011

Although the way in which we interact with posters has changed, and we may not always be cognizant of their influence, posters are still an integral part of our lives.  They will have a role to play in society as long as there are issues to discuss, information to be disseminated, and a public which needs to be inspired or educated.  It may not be a fact that we readily acknowledge, but posters still represent us—they are the visual symbol of our hopes, our dreams, our struggles, and our existence—just as they always have been.


Poster commenting on racial discrimination, created by Olivier Altmann


“Idle No More,” created by Dwayne Bird


”We Can Do It!” USA, 1942 created by J. Howard Miller


2003, Parody of an American World War II poster featuring Miss USA, created by Micah Ian Wright 







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