The Origins of the Poster and Early History up to the Turn of the 20th Century

Beginnings of poster advertising

The origins of the modern picture poster are strongly connected to the development of modern society. The industrial revolution created new economic needs that necessitated mass production and marketing of new consumer goods and promotion of travel destinations. The middle class wanted to be entertained and had the time and money to travel and to occasionally treat themselves to luxury goods.

In order to advertise tourist resorts or new goods in the rich and mobile society of Europe and America, the poster was first used in the mid-19th century. As a trivial mass medium, it announced all the new things people ought to buy and all the wonderful places they ought to go.

Artist Posters and Propaganda

Artists who were first hired for designing advertisements soon recognised that they could use the poster to announce their own exhibitions. These artist posters remain some of the most impressive designs ever made. During the First World War, the U.S. government started using posters as war propaganda. The European countries followed suit and used them to promote their democratic or extremist political attitudes.


The Poster’s Ancient Origins

The ancient Greeks already invented rotating announcement boards to communicate the programmes of their sports events. The Romans made announcements during election campaigns or communicated their opinions by painting or scratching them directly onto the walls of houses. They also used wooden boards covered in plaster.

The Invention of Paper

Paper was invented in China around 105 AD and was brought to Europe in the 7th century. At the time, it was an expensive luxury good for the conveyance of messages. In 1799, a Frenchman invented the first machine to replace the slow and expensive work of manual paper making. Fifty years later, wood pulp was invented and first used in paper manufacturing. Paper became highly affordable and could therefore be used for a wide range of purposes.

The Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of the printing press (1439-1444) introduced a whole new range of advertising possibilities. For the first time ever, the written word could be reproduced as many times as desired. The first printed matter and later the first posters were conventional in terms of typography, and illustrations were rather clumsy. Then, in 1797, Alois Senefelder discovered lithography, which offered a new method for serial printing of images.

The Rise of Lithography

Artists were excited by this new technique as it opened up many new possibilities. The printing process was slow and expensive until Jules Chéret (1836-1932), a painter and owner of a printing company in Paris, made improvements to the technique. With only four or five colours he was able to create a rich and vivid effect – he had learned this in England. He was also the first to introduce the large-format poster in Paris. Jules Chéret was rightly called the “creator of the gallery of the streets.”

The introduction of chromolithography in 1827 finally ensured the success of lithography. It was the dawn of artistic-illustrative poster design in Paris with painters such as Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen – it was a high point in poster history that has not been surpassed to this day.

Vintage posters from our selection