From adverts to propaganda, find out the stories behind these mass-produced works
By definition, a poster is any piece of printed paper designed to be attached to a wall. The modern poster as we know it dates back to the 1840s and 1850s when the printing industry perfected color lithography and made mass production possible. Lithography is a method of printing that uses simple chemical processes to create an image. Typically it uses a flat stone or metal plate on which the image areas are worked using a greasy substance so that the ink will adhere to them, while the non-image areas are made ink-repellent. Paper is then placed against the surface and the plate is run through a press.
Posters are multi-purpose, over the decades being used to advertise, as propaganda during war or to communicate a specific message by organized groups. Here we’ve searched to the Google Arts and Culture archives to share some historical examples of posters from all over the world.
1. World War I Garden poster, 1917
This poster from the US National Archives was first published during World War I and sees the personification of the government, Uncle Sam, encourage people to take up gardening and start planting their own food as canned goods were in short supply during both World War I and II.
The initiative paid off and more people than ever were eating fresh fruit and vegetables from their own backyards. In fact it’s been estimated that around 40% of the fresh produce consumed during World War II was homegrown.
2. Indian National Airways poster, 1940
This poster for the Indian National Airways depicts Old Fort, Jodhpur, in order to lure people into visiting the country. Indian National Airways was an airline based in Delhi and aimed to take advantage of the “golden age of travel” which took place between the 1930s and 50s.
Various commercial airlines began using posters to advertise the destinations they were able to take visitors to. Unable to produce photographic posters, the lithographic technique was adopted which allowed for rich, tempting colors. Airlines developed their own distinctive styles and used bold typography with beautiful illustrations, that conveyed the excitement, comfort and romance of air travel.
3. Release Mandela poster, 1988
This poster was created in support of the campaign to release anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist Nelson Mandela from jail, who was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the pro-apartheid government. The Release Mandela Campaign was launched in 1980 by Oliver Tambo and the ANC in exile. In 1985 the United Democratic Front (UDF) launched a new campaign for the release of Mandela, warning the government that there would be no peace in South Africa until he was freed.
Simple and pared back, the designer of this particular poster remains unknown, and because no one knew what Mandela looked like while he was in prison the portrait of him is based on pre-prison photographs.
4. League of Women Voters poster, 1920
In the 19th and 20th century, women and men alike joined the already decades-long fight for women’s suffrage in attaining equal voting rights. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution was ratified, finally granting women the right to vote.
This poster, which uses a painting by Louis Bonhajo, encapsulates this change by illustrating a woman with her child exercising her new-found right to vote, as an ethereal female figure points to the White House in the distance.
5. Sleaze Ball poster, 1992
Sydney’s Sleaze Balls were modelled on the Sleaze Balls of New York City and evolved from a protest against anti-homosexual laws. An annual party with a “kinky edge”, anything with the smallest element of sleaze was welcomed, including high camp drag to full S&M leather.
A celebration of LGBTQ culture, the Sleaze Ball was the premiere party, and became famous for the elaborate costumes partygoers came in. This poster is from the 1992 Sleaze Ball which was jungle themed and was attended by 14,000 people. The advert was designed by Mark Forrest who, with Alan Parkinson, oversaw the design for the whole event. The last Sleaze Ball took place in 2010, where it ceased to exist after the small club party scene took off in Sydney.
6. Unmarried Men poster, 1914
Lord Kitchener was a senior British Army officer and at the beginning of the First World War, he was appointed Secretary of State for War. Part of his role was to drive recruitment to the armed forces and his first poster is probably his most iconic image. Baring Lord Kitchener himself, pointing straight to readers, the now-famous poster reads: “Your country needs you”. It’s believed to be the most successful and influential recruiting poster.
Lord Kitchener was behind many other posters after that, including this poster that calls out specifically to unmarried men. Typographically-led, the poster urges men to really think about the reasons they have yet to sign up and whether or not they can in good conscience “shirk your duty to your country”.
7. Hodori at the Seoul Olympics poster, 1988
In 1988, the Summer Olympic Games were held in Seoul, South Korea – the second Summer Games to be held in Asia and the first since the 1964 Games which were held in Tokyo, Japan. These were the last Olympic Games for the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games.
Hodori was the official mascot of the Seoul Olympics and the stylized tiger was designed by Kim Hyun, who was keen to portray an “amicable Amur tiger” with the “friendly and hospitable traditions of the Korean people”. The name Hodori was chosen from 2,295 suggestions sent in by the public.
8. Archer poster, 1919
Theo van Doesburg's Archer poster is a characteristic representative of the De Stijl principles, a movement he created with fellow artists Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck and Vilmos Huszár. Advocates of De Stijl rejected natural depiction, favoring abstract compositions defined by horizontals and verticals.
This penchant for pure geometric forms is demonstrated in this poster, with the archer being composed of blue and black triangular, rectangular and pentagonal planes. The figure was a motif Doesburg featured several times in his work during his time in advertising. He proposed its use in several projects over the years including cheese labels for the company Klaverweide en Zoon in 1919, for Hagemeyer & Co and window designs for the Drachten Agricultural School in 1921.
9. Loose Lips Might Sink Ships poster, 1943
The phrase “loose lips, might sink ships” means “beware of unguarded talk” and originated from this US propaganda poster populated during World War II. The phrase was created by the War Advertising Council and was applied to many different versions of the poster. It warned servicemen and other citizens to avoid careless talk concerning secure information that might be useful to the enemy.
This particular iteration was created for the Seagram Distillers Corporation by designer Seymour R Goff. The British equivalent for the phrase was “Careless Talk Costs Lives” and “Keep Mum”, while Germany used “Schäm Dich, Schwätzer!” (“Shame on you, blabbermouth!”)
10. APT Residential Telephone Installation poster, 1935
As part of the Fundação Portuguesa das Comunicações collection, this poster was designed for the Anglo-Portuguese Telephone Company Limited and aimed to encourage the public to install a telephone at home or in their business.
In the years leading up to 1935, transatlantic telephone lines had been developed allowing people to talk from opposite ends of the world for the first time. Adopting a bold, graphic aesthetic, the poster depicts an old candlestick telephone, which was popular during the 1890s-1940s.