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The invention of lithography spurred the development of the modern poster in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1890s, poster design flourished, as artists began to work in the medium. Women were early contributors to this form of applied graphic art.
The Prints and Photographs Division's poster holdings are organized into categories according to the source, promotional goal, and/or prominent characteristics of the posters.
The division's Artist Posters series (85,000 posters; mid-1800s-present) highlights the work of poster artists from the United States and elsewhere, including the nineteenth-century work of Ethel Reed (b. 1874) and Blanche McManus (b. 1869) and sprinklings of later work by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), Anna Milo Upjohn (1869-1951), Neysa McMein (1890-1949), Florence Lundborg (1871-1945), Dorothy Waugh (b. 1896), and Martha Sawyers (b. 1902). Posters created in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s by Muriel Cooper (1924-1994), Jacqueline Casey (b. 1927), and April Greiman (b. 1948) help bring the collection up to date.
Comprising some of the outstanding pieces of poster design from the efflorescence of the medium in the 1890s to more contemporary works, the collection also provides a cross-section of design conventions used in posters produced to advertise everything from laundry soap to labor organizing and from radiators to reading.
Posters that have been requested for reproduction can be searched online. The collection has its own listing in the online catalog (Posters: Artist posters).
For posters not represented online, onsite researchers can consult the following.
The Performing Arts Posters (2,100 posters, 1840s-1930s) incorporates posters advertising burlesque, minstrel, vaudeville, operetta, and magic shows as well as “legitimate” theater.
With their depictions of such luminaries as Anna Held and Fanny Rice, the posters provide an avenue for exploring both the role women played in the entertainments themselves, and the ways in which their images were used to lure prospective audiences to the shows.
Catalog records for all of the Performing Arts Posters can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing (Posters: Performing Arts Posters).
The online records provide access by title and type of show, poster producer, topics such as “Mothers,” and “Servants,” as well as to the names of particular theater companies and entertainers. A researcher hunting for images of African American singer Sissieretta Jones, for instance, could discover through a name search an 1899 poster featuring a portrait of her and advertising her as “The Black Patti . . . the greatest singer of her race.”
Circus Posters (more than 400 posters, 1840-present) depict the stars and acts from this specialized entertainment arena. They feature such notables as Barnum and Bailey stars Isabella Butler and Rose Meers. One poster proclaims Meers to be the “Greatest Living Lady Rider—Entirely original in dress, style and action, engaged at a salary of $100.00 per day” (POS—Circus—Barnum & Bailey 1897, no. 9).
The posters can be searched online, including the genre term "circus posters" in the search.
Older access tools are also available in the reading room:
Reflecting the advent of a new entertainment technology, the division's collection of Motion Picture Posters (6,000 posters, 1896-present) encompasses thousands of posters and is particularly strong for films of the 1940s and 1950s. The breadth of the collection supports investigation of such topics as the evolving depiction of women in posters advertising Westerns, ranging from the poster for "The Rustler's Reformation," a 1913 release from Selig Polyscope Company, to the poster for "Two-Gun Lady," which was issued more than forty years later (POS—MOT. PIC.—1955 .T96, no. 1).
Posters that have been requested for reproduction can be searched online. The collection does not have its own listing in the online catalog, but items can be retrieved by searching the term motion picture posters in combination with titles of films, names of stars, and so forth.
For posters not represented online, onsite researchers can consult:
Recently acquired posters are not individually listed in the online catalog or the card indexes, nor are they reproduced in the binder. Advance arrangements are required to see uncataloged posters; motion picture posters from the 1960s onwards are mostly uncataloged.
The Prints & Photographs Division's film posters and pictorial lobby cards complement similar materials held in the Moving Image Section—Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.
Among the original silk-screen and lithograph Work Projects Administration (WPA) Posters (900 posters, 1936-43) produced by various branches of the WPA, there are several that address women directly, promoting prenatal care, advertising employment opportunities, and offering advice about health and child-rearing matters. Among posters about cancer prevention is one designed by Alex Kallenberg in the mid-1930s advocating early detection of breast and uterine cancer and reminding women that cancer claims more women than men.
Women artists contributed to the WPA poster effort, Katherine Milhous (1894-1977) and Vera Bock (b. 1905) prominent among them.
All of the posters can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing (Posters: WPA Posters).
Posters were put into service during both World War I and World War II to gain women's participation in bond drives, conservation efforts, war work, and the military itself. Images of women were also used to enjoin men to strive for victory. The division's World War I Posters (300 posters, ca. 1914-18) and World War II Posters (1,000 posters, ca. 1940-45) include posters made by the U.S. government and by private industry.
Images and text both offer insight on ideals that were held up to the American public and how women figured into them. Sometimes the acknowledgment of women's capabilities under the exigencies of war is backhanded, at best, as in the poster that declares, “Good Work, Sister: We Never Figured You Could Do a Man-Sized Job!”
All of the World War I posters can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing (Posters: World War I).
Posters produced in the U.S. during World War II that have been requested for reproduction can be searched online. The collection does not have its own listing in the online catalog but items can be retrieved by searching the terms world war 1939-1945 and posters.
For posters not represented online, onsite researchers can consult:
Propaganda (“prop art”) posters collected by Gary Yanker form the Yanker Poster Collection (3,500 posters, 1927-80; bulk 1965-80).
Nearly half of the Yanker posters were produced in the United States. Reflecting a period of upheaval in American politics and society, the political and social messages frequently express the views of causes and organizations that, at least at the time, were considered radical in nature. Posters by groups that have gained prominence, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), as well as lesser known groups such as Another Mother for Peace and East Bay Women for Peace, demonstrate women's public participation in efforts to better their own position in society and to address international social and political concerns.
Posters gathered from countries outside the United States provide a comparative glimpse of women's involvement in political movements abroad, as well as reaction to events and developments in the United States in general.
The vast majority of the posters in the Yanker Poster Collection can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing (Posters: Yanker Poster Collection).
Online catalog records provide access by
Article: Elena Millie and Jan Grenci, “Columbia Calls,” Affiche 14 (1995): 66-71
In this article, the writers discuss women poster artists' participation in the World War I propaganda effort, tapping examples from Library of Congress collections.