Poster Style

Sixty and Six: Chips from Literary Workshops
(New Amsterdam Book Company, 1897)


The origin of the poster style publishers' binding falls, naturally, within the history of the poster itself. A poster is a form of announcement or advertisement designed to capture the attention of potential customers passing by. The ancestors of the poster were handbills and playbills that existed as early as the 17th century and incorporated bold woodblock prints. In the 19th century Johann Senefelder developed the lithographic process, which allowed for a painterly style of mass printing at a reduced cost, and this opened the door for a growth of advertising posters. The flat and bold style of Japanese woodblock printing was also very popular during the time (see Japonisme) and worked well with the flatness of poster printing technique.

The development of the poster started in Paris, the art center of the world at that time. Jules Chéret and Eugène Grasset were early popular French poster artists. Impressionist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the most well known artists to have developed the medium; his theatrical posters of Parisian nightlife captured both its gaiety and gloom.


The Boy Anglers

(Decorative Designers)
(D. Appleton, 1904)

In America, the poster movement took off in the 1890s with a new advertising scheme developed by magazine publishers, beginning with Harper's Magazine. In the early 90s it was common for magazines to advertise holiday issues with special artistic covers, but most of the established magazines kept a standard conservative cover style for the rest of the year. In 1893 Harper and Brothers decided to experiment with a unique monthly poster to advertise their magazine and tapped their artistic director, Edward Penfield, to do so. Penfield created simple, bold images of affluent middle class people either reading Harper's or engaging in another leisure activity, and he combined them with some reference, often humorous, to the season at hand (for examples, see the Wallace Library digital collection).

His posters were immensely popular with the reading public, and other periodical publishers, book publishers and advertisers quickly followed suit with their own bold posters schemes. Numerous artists were employed to create these designs, including well-known ones like William Bradley and Maxfield Parrish. Poster collecting became the rage in the 1890s, and there was often more interest in the posters themselves than in the publications they advertised.

Flower Fables
(Hurst and Company, ca. 1900/1904)


Publishers gradually realized the disparity in popularity between the ads and the products. As one writer in the New York Tribune commented, customers often "did not think of buying the magazine advertised; they only wanted the poster." (quoted in American Art Posters, 51). Realizing where the public's interest lay, in the late 1890s, publishers began to transfer the bold, eye-catching poster style designs to magazine and books covers, hoping that this would increase sales. At the same time, they focused less attention on poster advertising, and many of these programs either ended or moved towards much more commercial, rather than artistic, production.

The Ambassador
(Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1898)

Poster style book covers shared many of the characteristics of an advertising poster. They were bold, often full cover designs that were meant to catch the attention of a passer-by. In keeping with the printing style of the poster, they usually had a flat, two-dimensional feel, limited number of colors and fairly simplified and stylized features. Because of the restricted color scheme, the bookcloth itself was usually included as a part of the image, and often the covers had ungrained cloth to aid with this integration. The scenes were often figural and narrative, displaying some aspect of the book's theme, but this was not a requisite feature. Like a poster, the text and typeface played an important part in the overall design, and words were usually thoughtfully placed in a matching style to the images.

Because it was so popular in the early 19th century, a great many cover designers worked in this style. Amy Sacker was one of the earliest to experiment in it; she had always been interested in figural covers, and was able to evolve this focus into poster style designs. Her covers show the influence of poster designers like Ethel Reed. William Bradley gained much of his artistic reputation through his Art Nouveau posters and magazine covers for Stone and Kimball, and he designed some poster style book covers as well. Others designers like Berkeley Smith and Decorative Designers were also prolific in the style.

Cap and Gown (Amy Sacker)
(L. C. Page and Company, 1897)

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Johnson, Diane Chalmers. American Art Nouveau. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

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