Advertising posters began as small handbills or fliers, but once color reproduction advanced and larger format prints could be produced, professional artists were hired to portray products and publicize events.
Beginning in France, posters were pasted to walls and kiosks throughout the city and advertised everything from cigarettes and dance halls to bicycles and aperitifs. Today, posters originals or reproductions are much sought-after for their charm, sophistication and artistic merit.
The earliest practitioner and major force in the poster medium was not, as many think, Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, but rather another Frenchman, Jules Cheret, who produced his first poster in 1858 for composer Jacques Offenbach.
By 1869, Cheret introduced a new system of printing that became the basis of his color posters throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, eventually earning him the title of father of modern lithography.
Cheret created posters for the Moulin Rouge years before Lautrec. Through the uniqueness of his work, Cheret gained the attention of the Impressionist and Pointillist painters of the day, and his influence is evident in their work.
Today, original posters by international artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Theophile Steinlen, Roger Broders, Adolphe Cassandre and most certainly Lautrec, create a frenzy at auction houses, selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Poster art tends to be a reflection of the period in which it was created, and whether political in nature or pure hucksterism, they echo the style of art in favor at the time. Almost any subject you can conjure, including local events such as Snowdown, Music in the Mountains, KDURs Furniture as Art or the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, can turn up as a collectable poster.
Travel posters touting steamships, trains, motor cars or airlines were ubiquitous, and almost every country fostered artists who specialized in the medium. All the early posters were produced using stone-based lithography, which resulted in brilliant visual displays lining station platforms and airline terminals. This method of production is no longer cost effective, and most rely on a form of digital printing. Hence nothing comparable to them exists today, which in turn has established a marketplace for collectables.
During their heyday, most posters were just pasted over as new events and products took their place. As a result of that, plus deterioration, fewer and fewer originals are available for purchase. Thus, owning one of them can be expensive; a small Cheret, for example, might be had for as little as $1,500, but larger, more limited versions can go as high as $20,000.
In 1920s America, the now-famous Taos Artists Group was employed to promote travel through the Southwest. In addition to early railroad tourism, the two world wars gave rise to patriotic (Rosy the Riveter), recruiting (Uncle Sam Wants You!) and war bond posters, and eventually the film industry found the medium to be a perfect vehicle with which to advertise.
In fact, several years ago, an original poster featuring Boris Karloff as The Mummy sold for a whopping $450,000. Maybe its time to crawl into the attic and scour grandmas trunk. Hey, ya never know.
Stew Mosberg is a freelance writer and has written about art regionally and nationally. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.