For a brief moment in the 1890’s, artistic posters became a cultural rage—almost a mania—in America
“Is there anything under the sun which people will not collect?” the famous French novelist Balzac once asked. “They collect buttons, walking sticks, fans, political pamphlets and newspapers. One day,” he added contemptuously, “they may even collect posters.”
And so, inevitably, it came to pass. By 1890, forty years after Balzac’s death, poster designing was very much an art, and poster collecting a mania. In Paris, where the fad originated, spirited, gaily colored posters could be seen all over the city, advertising everything from art exhibits and little magazines to the lighthearted pleasures of the music hall. Products of art nouveau —that widespread rebellion against the confines of the sentimental naturalism of the late nineteenth century—many of these posters were done by artists of real greatness like Toulouse-Lautrec and Henri Bonnard, or lesser figures like Jules Chéret (who had been inspired by American circus posters). The demand for them was at times overwhelming. People tried to steal posters or to bribe workers employed to paste them up, and art dealers found them a lucrative sideline.
Soon the “poster craze,” as the phenomenon was known, had crossed the Atlantic and had America in its grip. There were poster exhibits everywhere. A bicycle manufacturer organized a mammoth competition, which brought in close to a thousand entries. Poster dealers set themselves up in almost all the major cities. Periodicals kept collectors informed on the latest poster developments. In Chicago, people gave parties at which the ladies dressed as poster figures, leaving the gentlemen to guess at their identity. In Boston, young people in love sent each other symbolic posters.
It was not that posters were new to America; the novelty was rather the poster as an art form. Since the mid-nineteenth century, posters were a common enough sight, plastered on board fences, brick walls, country barns, and covered bridges. Produced by large lithographing firms, they were the unsigned work of craftsmen who were less concerned with aesthetic theories than with the exact rendering of whatever image a client called for—whether a patent medicine remedy, a tearful scene from an Uncle Tom show, or the one and only living giraffe in America.
An exception to the rule were the posters issued by magazines in the 1880’s to announce their holiday numbers. These were done by the magazines’ illustrators, who traditionally signed their work. Small in format and intended for shop-window display, they were of no great value as works of art, being usually an enlarged illustration, fuzzily designed and overburdened with décor. Uninspired as they may have been, however, they did at least set a precedent, and gave publishers the idea of importing posters designed by leading European graphic artists of the day.
Harper’s, in 1889, was the first to make the experiment, commissioning a Christmas poster by Eugene Grasset, a Swiss whose work reflected modern tastes but was not so avant-garde as to offend the magazine’s conservative public. It was not, however, until the spring of 1893, when the poster craze on the Continent was at its height, that the editors of Harper’s allowed one of their own artists to try a poster in the latest and most fashionable French style.
They chose a young man named Edward Penfield, who produced a design that caused a minor sensation. His work was soon so popular that during the next six years he designed a window-display poster for every issue of the magazine and became in the process the first American poster artist to win international acclaim.
Though Penfield modeled much of his work after Toulouse-Lautrec, his art was essentially American. His favorite subject was that persistent ideal of young femininity—frigidly attractive, unmistakably upper class, slightly bored, and unassailably virginal. Penfield’s maidens were either shown alone (preferably with a copy of Harper’s held in a languid hand) or with an equally well-bred male companion indulging in seasonal pastimes—watching a horse race, sunning on the beach, riding in a carriage (they were never seen on a conveyance as bourgeois as a bicycle).
The demand for Penfield’s posters was so great that often more copies of them were printed than of the magazine itself. Before long, Harper’s competitors, the great magazines of the day like Century and Scribner’s had sensed a good thing and were issuing posters of their own. Some people even began to take the fad quite seriously and to worry, like Ruskin, about the ethical function of art in society. One popular artist, an Englishman named Louis J. Rhead, went so far as to advocate the poster as a means of uplifting the flagging moral standards of the working classes. In his zeal to crush proletarian sensuality, Rhead took to designing impeccably moral posters of monstrous size, one of which measured twenty-four by forty-one feet.
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.