Skip to main content

Chicago Transit

July 2024
2min read

During the 1920s the city spurred local rail traffic with an unparalleled run of superb and stylish posters

Surprisingly little is known about the posters shown on these pages. Springing up practically overnight in the mid-1920s, they bloomed for a short while, four or five years at most, and then their season, was over. Who was behind them and the reason for their demise is mostly a matter of conjecture. But one thing is certain: they rank with the best commercial art ever produced in this country, distinguished by their simple, vigorous shapes, subtle colors, and bold typography. Their wit and good humor is captivating, as is the air of romance that suffuses their intrinsically practical purpose—to promote the pleasures of traveling on Chicago’s public transport system.

In the 1920s the city’s rail network and its outlying feeder lines—the Chicago Rapid Transit, the North Shore, South Shore, and Chicago, Aurora & Elgin railroads—all were owned or managed by the English-born industrialist Samuel lnsull. And it is he and his second in command, Britton I. Budd, who are generally credited with conceiving the poster campaign as part of a wider effort to gain riders. Throughout the decade, press agents of the various lines blitzed local newspapers with human interest stories, provided lecturers for clubs and schools, and even ran a free film library that specialized in the history of Chicago-area transportation.


The posters played a major role in this promotional scheme. Close to a hundred were produced, with new ones appearing bimonthly for exhibit on elevated platforms and at stations on the line, as well as for schools and libraries. Not only were they an instant hit with the public, but they also won honors from professional societies; the Art Directors Club of New York regularly accepted them for its annual exhibit and awarded medals to several. The art director responsible for the poster project remains unknown, and we know little about the artists themselves beyond their names: Willard Frederic Elmes, Norman Erickson, Rocco Navigato, Oscar Rabe Hanson, and Harry Waters Armstrong are among those whose work was most often seen. One of the few to break through this puzzling anonymity was Ervine Metzl, who went on to become a successful illustrator and to write an authoritative history of poster art.

This is the only collection of posters celebrating the life of an American city, but an antecedent can be found in the London Transport poster series. Dating back to the turn of the century, and given new life in 1912 with the appointment of Frank Pick as the executive in charge, they are, fortunately, still being produced. With their careful attention to nuances of style and taste, their evident joy in city life and the romance of travel, London Transport posters clearly set the tone for the Chicago posters. Since they would have been well known at the time, it’s likely that the mysterious art director in Chicago had admired them in his travels or had seen them reproduced in the many international art journals that singled them out for praise. If Chicago looked overseas for inspiration, so the compliment seems to have been returned—London’s Victoria and Albert Museum owns a half-dozen prime Chicago examples.

Unlike their London counterparts, the Chicago posters didn’t outlive the 1920s, but today they are experiencing something of a rejuvenation. This is due in part to the efforts of David Gartler, a Chicago graphics dealer, who first became interested in the posters ten years ago when a customer brought in sixty of them that she had discovered abandoned in the basement of her apartment building. A portion of this trove eventually was donated to the city’s historical society; others were restored, exhibited, and sold by Gartler. He has since published reproductions of several, as has the Chicago Historical Society. Perhaps the best new use of these works is being made by a group called South Shore Recreation, which was formed to fight a federal move to abandon passenger service along that route. To raise funds for their lobbying effort, the organization reprinted a dozen of the posters and quickly sold out an edition of more than one thousand. Today the South Shore line is still in the business of carrying passengers, and the posters that helped it do so are delighting a new generation of riders.

—Carla Davidson


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.