December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
The American of the early Nineteenth Century did not have many pictures to look at. No illustrated journals, no bright electronic images presented themselves to him; only a handful of “museums” offered him a glimpse of art. Consequently the introduction of the poster, suddenly decorating fence and shed and rural barn, was an instant success with a people starved for excitement and works of imagination. No one knows who invented the poster, of course, for these crude, ephemeral pasted sheets are first definitely recorded in the early 1830’s. The natural outgrowth of the handbill and the development of such new methods of printing as lithography, they were first used to herald the wild animal shows which astounded our ancestors. Soon they blossomed forth in garish colors, and embraced the stage, the patent medicine trade and every conceivable industry, speaking always in a wonderful tone of unsophisticated grandiloquence. In this century the art form is utterly changed, and few of the old posters have survived wind, rain and time. Probably the largest and least-known collection of them today, from which this selection is taken, belongs to Levi Herman, who keeps a loft full of some 5,000 surviving posters in an old building on Union Square in New York.