The Poster Craze

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But the craze for artistic posters might never have gained real momentum had it not been for the enthusiasm of the avant-garde periodicals known as “miniature” magazines. They seemed to be everywhere in the nineties, earnest and sell-consciously “arty” little publications that flourished wanly for a few issues and were forgotten almost before they died. They had, in the words of H. L. Mencken, a penchant for “odd sizes, shapes, freak illustrations, wide margins, Jenson type, scurrilous abuse and petty jealousies, impossible prose and doggerel rhyme.” Elbert Hubbard exaggerated only slightly when he wrote in 1896: “We now have the Lotus, the Lotos and the Lettuce. The latest is the Prairie Dog. Its hole is in Lawrence, Kansas, and it is patterned after the Chip Monk. Verily like begets like.”

Actually, a few of the miniatures—the Chap Book of Chicago was the most notable—had real merit. Unlike the established big-circulation literary magazines, which had to be careful not to outdistance the taste of their public, the miniatures could afford to be daring—or perhaps, they could not afford to be timid. Thus their posters came to reflect the latest trends of the art nouveau movement; their popularity was so widespread, in fact, that in many cases the posters sold for ten times the price of the magazine.

For all its brief duration, the poster craze did produce some remarkable artists—people like Will H. Bradley, whose intricate patterns and wavy lines looked like something out of a Celtic illuminated manuscript; Ethel Reed of Boston, a young woman whose lovely poster girls were often modeled after her own stunning likeness; and John Sloan, who soon forsook the dreamlike stylization of art nouveau for the uncompromising realism of what came to be known as the Ashcan school.

Like most fads, the poster craze subsided as suddenly as it had begun. By the end of 1896, one critic reported, “The absence of any new designs showing originality or uncommon merit … seems to prove that poster designing has seen its best days.” And so, apparently, it had. As public interest waned, poster artists drifted into other fields; except for a fortunate few like Sloan or Bradley, most of them were seldom heard of again.