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Advertising Poster Stamps

by Bonnie & Roger Riga

It seems advertising pervades our lives. It's everywhere - in our newspapers, buses, on television and radio, at the movies and always within sight or hearing no matter where we are. That's life in our generation. But it wasn't always that way. Back in the early decades of the twentieth century, pictorial advertising was the exception rather than the rule. Companies had to work at getting their products in the consumer's consciousness.

What advertising there was, was usually in black and white and mainly text rather than pictures. When the Germans were able to produce multi-colored printed stamps on their presses, advertising saw a golden opportunity. Advertising poster stamps, designed to be placed on business mail or, even better, collected into albums, became the rage in the early 1900s.

Those of us familiar with poster stamps have come to love the graphics and the insight to a different time. Both are significant reasons to which poster stamp collectors are attracted. The early years of the twentieth century were times of Art Deco and new and exciting products, such as motorcars, radio, airplanes. With technology showing the way, advertising went from text to pictures, black and white to exciting visuals and color. It was a shift to the consumer society that we are so familiar with today.

Figure 1.

Every imaginable product it seems was advertised on a poster stamp - tooth powder, eye glasses, outboard motors, candy, baby food, even drain pipes (Figure 1). Clothiers such as Lord and Taylor or Hart Schaffner and Marx used the poster stamp to promote their stores and the images of the wealthy sportsman. (Figure 2) Lord and Taylor showed a man in suit, spats and bowler watching another man in tennis whites with racquet and ball while Hart Schaffner and Marx portrayed a seated hunter, shotgun in hand, with his dog at his side. It's one thing to write about clothing and another entirely to project image and unspoken messages of class and wealth with small pieces of artwork on poster stamps. No one would mistake the target audience of these poster stamps.

Figure 2.

Clothing itself was usually less geared to a specific audience or income bracket. Practical clothing such as boots, shirts or overalls usually depicted activities common to an age group or occupation, while often mentioning that the product was union made (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

Some of the most graphically strong poster stamps were produced for products of indulgence, such as beer, near beer, and cigarettes (Figure 4). A pool table was often found in beer halls or other commercial establishments, but a pool table in a family home was much more unusual in middle class America. Brunswick, one of the biggest names in pool tables, issued a series of poster stamps showing a father teaching his son to shoot pool at home (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Striking graphics could also be found in more mundane products, like paint or trucks (Figure 6). The orange and yellow sky behind the Peerless truck gives a sense of adventure and excitement to the vehicle that no amount of words could begin to convey. The cartoonish painter on the scaffolding putting the finishing touch to the sign for the Johnston Paint Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, says all that needs to be said. Instant messaging is nothing new.

Figure 6.

These small pieces of advertising history in the form of stamps take us back to a time when color and pictures took the place of words. It was as significant then as computers and satellite TV are now. We cannot go back in time physically, but we can journey to another point in time with the poster stamps of the beginning of the last century. It's a very enjoyable and informative trip.

This column first appeared in Scott Stamp Monthly and has been edited for online presentation.
This page was last updated July 10 2016.
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