History of Poster Printing

The poster, a printed paper consisting of textual, graphical and sometimes both types of printing elements, have been used for well-over 200 years to express art, advertise events, performances, products and services, and for war propaganda purposes.

Poster usage for war propaganda purposes was particularly common during the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially during the World War I and World War II eras.

This, of course, was prior to the introduction of radio and other print media, which later took the place of poster usage as the primary source of communication with the public. Historically, the evolution and transformation of the modern poster as the world knows it originated in Europe with the Americas quickly following step.

The intent of the poster is to create and feature “eye-catching” designs meant to attract the attention of the masses. Throughout the years, they’ve been available in a wide-variety of sizes, styles, and have been printed using a wide-spectrum of printing techniques.

Printing Techniques of the Past

Lithography, the printing technique that revolutionized the poster in the late 1800s and early 1900s was invented by German, Alois Senefelder in 1796, but not utilized until the mid-to-late 1800s. In the beginning, lithography was believed to be “too slow” and “too expensive.”

This was until the introduction of “Cheret’s three stone lithographic process.”

During the process, three stones were used to create vibrant posters with intense color and texture. The three stones used were typically red, yellow or blue, which enabled the artist to produce a poster featuring both graphics and text using any color of the rainbow.

Imagery or text was etched into wax, which would later be applied to a plate or stone, and then transferred onto a rubber blanket or paper. Prior to the introduction of lithography, primary poster printing techniques included the Wood Block technique and the Intaglio technique.

Woodblock, or “xylography,” is the world’s oldest method of transferring text and imagery to an object. This technique originated in China, with roots dating back as far as 200 AD. Woodblock printing quickly spread thereafter to Japan, Europe and later the Americas.

During Woodblock printing, an image or text is carved into wood, which is then “inked-up” and pressed onto paper, which allows for the transfer of the image and/or text from the wood to the paper. Wood block printing required a lot of work, as the transferred imagery would print mirrored and colorless, so the etchings needed to be backwards and multiple blocks were needed in order to create color.

Intaglio, or “metal engraving” and “engraving,” involves the utilization of metal to engrave imagery or text, which was then covered in ink and pressed onto paper. The most common metals used for intaglio include zinc and copper; however, steel was used on occasion.

Intaglio dates back to 15th century Germany. Once lithography was introduced to the world, artists, advertisers, marketers and governments could then print posters in mass production, cheaper and faster.

The Historical Art of Posters

In France, the 1890s marked the beginning of the “Belle Epoque” era. During this era, the world fell in love with the art of the poster. The first poster to create a “fine art” buzz was the Moulin Rouge poster of 1891 designed by artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. The first “Art Nouveau” masterpiece was designed in 1894 by a Czech named Alphonse Mucha who worked in Paris.

This style would dominate Paris and the world until World War I. During this era, in each country that the poster was utilized to express art and advertisements, it encompassed the country’s unique societal culture. For example, in France, posters featured cafés, whereas in Spain, the poster featured festivals and bullfights.

In Italy, the poster featured fashion and the opera, and in Germany, magazines and trade fairs took precedence, while Britain and the United States used the poster to feature journals and the traveling circus. In the U.S., posters were frequently displayed to tell town citizens that a carnival or circus was coming soon.

Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque dominated Paris until about 1901. In 1898, a new artist took Paris by storm, who would later be donned the father of modern advertising – Leonetto Cappiello. When this young Italian caricaturist arrived to Paris, he brought with him the ability to create one bizarre or humorous image with text that could capture the attention of the masses.

Poster style, or “Plakatstil,” was born in 1905 by Berlin artist, Lucien Bernhard and by Munich artist, Ludwig Hohlwein. During World War I, the poster was used as war propaganda to raise money, for recruitment purposes, and to advertise war atrocities. The first World War produced about 20-million posters.

Modern Poster Art

Post World War I, the world began to make a transition from organic poster art to modern art. The focus shifted to industrial advertisements versus war propaganda. Modern art movements during this era include: Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, and Futurism.

World War II marked the ending of “stone lithography,” but not the end of the poster even though posters were now in competition with radio and other forms of media print. The mass production printing technique now utilized to create posters was the “photo offset” method, which integrated photography into a poster’s design.

The Object Poster Style ruled the 1950s; a style that turned everyday objects into big “icons.” International Typographic Style dominated the poster scene during the 70s, which consisted of black and white typographic elements.

This style lost its popularity in the early 80s with the world’s introduction to “Post-Modern” poster design. The Post-Modern poster is designed using an offset printing process. This style is predominantly graphic with designs that appear more complex, helping to pave the way for computer graphic style posters of today.

Poster Uses of Today

Posters are still sold and displayed worldwide; however, they’re not nearly as popular as other forms of media, particularly with the emergence of the Internet. Posters are designed to promote movies, events, concerts, and they’re also designed for art purposes.

Popular poster designs for wall decorating purposes include sports, bands, inspirational, scenic, travel, retro, educational and more. They’re taped to walls and framed in stylish picture frames.

Poster Restoration and Preservation

It’s only normal for paper to age and deteriorate with time. To prevent loss of historical value and for preservation, posters are backed with fabric. This method of poster preservation dates all the way back to 19th Century France.

More modern poster preservation techniques include using an “acid-free” paper in between the fabric and the poster to avoid paper that becomes “brittle” with time.

Not only does fabric backing help to preserve posters, but it also keeps the poster from “waving” when framed, and it keeps the poster flat, which makes it easier when repairs are necessary.