5/23/2013 - They were dressed in bold designs. They had dynamic composition. Their colors were vibrant. As a general rule, the art of the United States’s 1890’s “Poster Mania” craze was eye-catching, not easily ignored.
During this time, posters became the middle class’s art. People were fascinated with these new posters that popped up around towns, in bookstores, shops and homes. The Currier Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition, “Poster Mania! Leisure, Romance and Adventure in 1890s America,” shows that even in 19th century America, people were easily influenced by simple, dynamic designs by creative artists.
“If you didn’t have money to collect paintings but were interested in art, this was an easy type of art to acquire and display,” said Andrew Spahr, director of collections and exhibitions at the Currier Museum.
They’re still catchy, even by today’s standards. Simple designs, little text and contrasting colors make it so that these designs can catch your eyes from across the room.
These posters were created before magazines were wrapped in bright illustrations and striking photographs. Prior to this movement, their covers featured text, perhaps that displayed the magazine’s name and issue date, but for the most part, magazine covers were plain.
It wasn’t until Edward Penfield created his first “art poster” to announce the 1893 issue of Harper’s monthly magazine that this craze caught on. Posters by artists inspired by contemporary European art were used to market magazines like The Chap-Book, Harper’s and even local publications, such as The Manchester Mirror. They contained few colors but were rapidly produced using high-speed lithography. By 1895, posters were trendy, and people wanted them decorating their spaces. Book publishers, journals and leisure businesses began creating posters, too, and they decorated bookshops, stores, storefronts, streets and homes.
Not only were they less expensive, but they were also more attractive to growing classes of people, especially since more of them could read.
“During this time, there’s more emphasis on education than there was before. You have more people who can read, and there’s more interest in reading magazines and books,” Spahr said.
It was the time of the Industrial Revolution and populations, particularly in the city, were becoming more urbanized. People were looking for more activities to do indoors, Spahr said.
Sprinkled within the exhibit, among the Chap-book, Mother Goose and Harper’s posters, are images from the 1890s. Right when you walk in, you’re graced with black and white images of Manchester’s Elm Street, of downtown Nashua. Walk toward the center of the room, and viewers will catch glimpses of home life during this time: women playing chess in long, old-fashioned gowns in ornately decorated rooms, men and women conversing inside.
These glimpses are meant to remind viewers that though some of these poster designs look current (indeed, some of the posters don’t look unlike what you might see on the cover of magazines like The New Yorker), these images were fabricated about 120 years ago, when women were just becoming independent and roads were meant for horses, carriages and bicycles, not automobiles.
Incidentally, posters played a role in both of these late 19th-century movements, as evidenced through a back section of the exhibit, where men and women are pictured on bicycle-themed posters.
“They were trying to sell to the same upper-middle class that books and magazines were sold to,” Spahr said.
You didn’t need a bicycle, just as you didn’t need the magazines that posters advertised for. Spahr compared this to today’s iPod.
“People didn’t know they ‘needed’ a bicycle until you tried to sell it to them and convinced them they did,” he said.
As a result, this became a major part of women’s independence, Spahr said. Women could travel on their own, and it became more acceptable for them to do so.
There was one major flaw that cut the poster craze short: in many cases, the posters began selling better than the magazines and books they were advertising. As a result, as they headed into the 20th century, publishers began incorporating these images into the cover designs of said magazines and books, and thus, the expense of producing posters was no longer necessary.
“I think there’s a real, down-to-earth quality to it,” said Carey Cahoon, manager of membership and development operations at the Currier, who is performing later this season in a theatre KAPOW show accompanying the exhibition.
She said it’s still relevant today.
“After all, aren’t we always looking at magazine covers while waiting in lines while shopping?”