June 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 4
A Chicago advertising executive's crusade for greater production through beautiful posters.
During the boom years between World War I and the Great Depression, the American economy surged ahead on its war-tuned pistons, and the order of the day was production. Factories turned out radios, telephones, and Model A’s, while in the cities, high in the towers of commerce, armies of statisticians and managers, secretaries and speculators, produced the paper evidence of our national prosperity. Business was a matter of faith; business was men like Sinclair Lewis’s cigar-chewing capitalist hero Babbitt, extolling the office and railing against unions and socialism: “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub … the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce!”
But Lewis’s fictional boss faced the same problem his real-world counterparts did. Preaching production was one thing; motivating employees to actually produce was something else. It’s a problem as old as management itself: What can you do to keep workers working?
Back in the twenties, one way was to place an order with the Mather Company, of Chicago. Charles Mather, chief of his family’s printing house, was selling what he called “Constructive Organization Posters,” motivation-minded lithographs that united colorful graphics with inspirational messages ranging from the importance of teamwork (“All Together Pull: Pull Together When You Want to Win”) to the benefits of amiability (“Say It and Smile: Smiles Chase Grouches.”) Prominently placed on office and factory walls, the posters were thought to instruct, inspire, and “stop losses and build large profits for you.” Mather sold his posters by subscription, and between 1923 and 1929 he issued more than 350 varieties, each sharing the sort of go-get-’em style that might make one wonder if Babbitt himself weren’t doing the writing.
Mather’s messages drew their strength from their corresponding symbolic images: A train steams through the night, a sailboat crosses the finish line, a pole-vaulter clears the high bar.
“When you look at this allegorical attempt at good work and good relationships, this kind of wonderful naivete is virtually exclusively American,” observes the poster historian George Theofiles. “But we have to address the lack of what we have in abundance today, which is irony and cynicism. We’re so marinated in this mess that we can’t see that those messages were in fact normal in society.”
Workplace motivational posters weren’t exactly a new idea. During World War I, the government had papered factory walls with exhortations like “Hip-Hip! Another Ship.” Mather’s inspirational messages, moreover, likely weren’t drawn from his own inspiration. According to the poster dealer and Mather historian John Heller, it was a salesman named Charles Howard Rosenfeld who initially approached Mather with the idea of developing a series of incentive posters, for which he would do the writing. “Mather had left the family firm for a while and gone to work for an advertising agency in Chicago,” Heller says. “When he was called back to take over, he was bored with general printing and was casting about to find something else to do. Enter Rosenfeld—and a match made in heaven.”
For a while, anyway. In 1925, Rosenfeld and another employee broke away to form the C. J. Howard Company, which sold a series of work-incentive cards designed for display on desks (they even sold a tiny easel for the purpose). Meanwhile, “Bill Jones” posters, brought out by a competing firm in the United Kingdom but sold here, featured weekly tips from model worker Bill Jones such as “Be prepared, plan, then do! ‘Putting the cart before the horse’ doesn’t get you far.”
But Mather stands out not only for the scale of his production and the quality of his images but also for his use of advertising to convince his customers that the most intractable employee problems could be rooted out if they would only subscribe today.
Promised the 1927 catalogue: “Mather posters stop human element losses—stimulate workers’ thought and action—increase individual and departmental productivity—bring about real teamwork—and make big profits for every concern using them.” To speed such felicity, managers could consult an index of 134 workplace ills (among them “Grumbling,” “Surliness,” and “Interest, Lack Of”) and order the numerically corresponding posters whose messages were designed specifically to solve the problem: “The experience of Mather clients proves that the worker ‘buys’ such ideas, just as he buys advertised goods over the counter in a store.”
Did it work? “No, I doubt it,” Heller says. But he explains that for many businessmen of the day, Mather’s ethos of “management in a can” had perfect timing. “A lot of these guys came out of the war. They started or expanded a business but were not particularly well trained in how you stimulate or motivate.” Theofiles adds that even if subscribers weren’t entirely sold on the posters’ efficacy, times were flush enough to support the gamble: “There were sufficient fat and profits that spending 20 bucks on a series like this—the feeling was, well, let’s try it.”
They didn’t have long. With the Crash of 1929, “the posters sure weren’t needed,” Theofiles says. “They were the least important pieces of paper in the office.” Mather’s Constructive Organization Posters would not be printed again.
While work-incentive posters would be used extensively during the Second World War, their peacetime applications had pretty much ended. In the postwar years, the rise of television advertising (what Theofiles refers to as the “kinetic poster”), together with a better educated and increasingly savvy public, reduced the Mather approach to an anachronism. “Nobody,” says Heller, “was going to be turned on by these things.”
Perhaps not, but the genre hasn’t vanished entirely. Today, the catalogue company Successories produces a series of framed motivational posters for the workplace with messages that include: “Team Commitment: When everyone is moving forward together, success will take care of itself.” Mother would approve.