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Hot off the Press: American Publishers’ Posters of the 1890s

January 25–May 19, 2002

When it appeared on newsstands in March 1893, a poster created by Edward Penfield for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine initiated a new era in advertising in the United States. The bold shapes and bright colors of Penfield’s design introduced an American audience to the Art Nouveau style in the graphic arts, which had been broadly launched in Paris two years earlier.

In 1891, the first such posters made by two young French artists—Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—not only attracted the attention of the Parisian public, but also created a sensation among collectors, who surreptitiously removed them from the walls wherever they were on display. Within a short time poster mania began its spread across Europe and the United States, from Saint Petersburg to San Francisco.

American artists who kept close track of the latest European trends used the new style in designing posters that promoted a wide array of products, from bicycles to cough syrups. Publishing houses and newspapers in major cities adapted the aesthetic principles of Art Nouveau for posters to sell new books, periodicals, and daily papers. Two publishers—Harper and Brothers in New York and their Philadelphia rival, J. B. Lippincott—engaged house artists to produce one poster each month to be used as newsstand placards to advertise the popular magazines they published.

Much to the publishers’ surprise and consternation, the posters often sold better than the magazines, with the result that by the end of the decade the practice of producing a monthly poster was abandoned. After 1900, the magazines themselves began sporting attractive pictorial covers, replacing the traditional yellow covers seen in many of the posters on view here.

Main Building


John Ittmann, Curator of Prints

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