Posters are best described simply as enticing lithographic messages, even though those printed since the earliest years of the 20th century were increasingly done by advanced photo-electric means.
A poster can be as small as a picture postcard or as large as an outdoor billboard. Though sizes vary up to 42 x 84 inches, they are commonly 20 x 30 inches. Circus posters from their earliest days until recent times came as one-sheets (28 x 42 inches) and other sizes up to 100-sheet size which were panoramas spread across the entire wall of city buildings and railroad depots.
Mention the word "poster" and most of us conjure up visions of Toulouse-Lautrec's showgirls of the Moulin Rouge or Montgomery Flagg's legendary, “I Want You for the U.S. Army." Posters, however, were in reality a major medium of advertising and propaganda in those long-ago years before the advent of television or radio. Most Americans lived their entire lives surrounded by posters wherever they went. Though originally conceived for such utilitarian and transitory purposes, they developed into objects of irresistible, decorative appeal and into a great collectible.
Undoubtedly the American poster’s ancestry can be traced back directly to the broadsides of colonial days used by merchants to advertise their wares and services. The poster movement in Europe also contributed a great deal to its eventual popularity in America. Use of posters in this country was common in the years before 1870, but they were an uninspiring lot with little illustration and generally poor quality production.
All of this changed during the 1880s and posters swiftly emerged as fashionable and treasured advertising ephemera. This was due primarily to advancements in lithography, which permitted not only inexpensive printing with color for all types of commercial needs but their production at the rate of 1,000 per hour. The flowering of the "Golden Age" of American illustration, occurring nearly simultaneously, was another significant factor. The French were responsible for the original inspiration to create advertisements that were artistic and beautiful as well as functional. Cherat is regarded as the "Father of the Poster" because he and his disciples were the first to realize the aesthetic possibilities of the poster and to develop its potential.
From France the idea spread to England and then to this country, where Edward Penfield took up the challenge. Consider the founding father of American poster art, Penfield used his position as Harper's Magazine's art director to convince his bosses to experiment with issuing small posters each month to advertise the magazine. Penfield did the artwork and they first appeared for the April 1893 issue, achieving instant popularity. The practice endured for five more years with Penfield missing only twice in getting out a poster for each issue.
Thus began the deluge and soon every publisher and advertiser copied the idea and untold thousands of posters were produced for every conceivable kind of product. Soon America was captivated with the poster and went crazy over the new fad. The peak years according to some observers of the scene were 1895 and 1896, when the best posters were actively preserved, traded, bought and sold. Posters achieved a status closely akin to that of rare coins. It was also in 1896 that an unknown artist, Maxfield Parrish, won The Century Company's poster competition.
Poster collectors can choose from among many categories. One, however, the American theater, has long commanded a lot of attention. Broadly considered, such a topic spans well over a century of years since the film industry continues to use posters even today to promote its offerings.
The theatrical world, starting with vaudeville, had a great need for posters which could be used in every city and hamlet on the circuit. The same was true for the many circuses touring the country.
Later, Hollywood took over as the main customer, but this was not until the late 1920s.
Poster designing to advertise theatrical productions during the first two decades of the 20th century was responsible for employing the largest number of America's best artists. The big names were allowed to sign their artwork and it is these artist-signed posters that have evolved into being much sought after by poster art collectors. In fact, since most of these men and women freelanced their talents among all paper ephemera producers, specialists in Paper Americana of all types have gravitated towards the poster. The artist at work during the "Gay Nineties," and afterwards, had to rely upon several methods to construct his or her poster. Sometimes, the play's manuscript, along with some photographs and a list of preferred scenes, was given to the made and submitted to the producers or director for approval. Then the details were worked into this basic design. Using a lantern, many artists threw the illustration upon a canvas, where it was painted in the size of the finished poster. It was now ready to be transferred to the stones, the heart and soul of lithography. The mediums used in such printing were oils, water colors, and pastels. Craftsmen worked with oil crayons upon the stones. The men who finalized the designs of the original artists were almost always Germans or German-Americans. Fortunate was the artist who could himself transfer his work to the stones; he or she then had full control over their own works.
The posters were now ready to be positioned into special holders inside and outside of the theater - be it on Broadway in New York City or some small-town "Orpheum" or "Palace" with seating capacities of the 100 or less. Touring companies, and there were many of them, trekking across the nation from late Victorian times to the 1920s, placed them in merchant windows all around town.
Today, while all posters are highly collectible, those connected to the entertaining arts seem to possess a special appeal. Anything dating back to the early years of the American stage, from the 1890s to 1920s, is especially in demand.