There are a number of places to learn about how to be swell. If you look around the walls of your dentist’s office you might see one attempt that has been made. I am sure many of you are familiar with the obligatory motivational posters that became popular in the late nineties starting with “success” printed below all sorts of thematic pictures. Even Barney Stinson has dipped his toe into proverbial the motivational poster pool. The motivational posters that we are all familiar with are symbolized by the Sharper Image Store staple, the Sucessories. They are usually the butt of the office joke, but back in your grandfather’s day, they revered as sound advice.And some of these original posters are now considered art.
Looking through the spyglass of history from the vantage point of today, motivational posters from the first part of the 20th century provide a window into America’s changing idea of what it meant to be a man. It was a time of idealism and optimism, and people were confident both about the future of their economy and the world around them. This new idea of manhood peaked in the 20’s, just before the Great Depression. Conservative ideals of self reliance and promotion of the individual were championed. Popular quotes became personal mottos like Henry Ford‘s saying, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice”. The belief was common that constructive encouragement could assist anyone from any walk of life in self improvement.
It was in this environment the “motivational poster” took shape, businesses began hanging beautifully illustrated posters with the slogans and mottos of encouragement and provocation. There were even trading cards with similar inciting words, given to workers like baseball cards. Business owners counted on these posters and cards boosting productivity and morale and to instill into workers the strong ethic needed to be a valuable employees.
The Parker-Holladay Company was at the forefront of this burgeoning motivation business. They created a line of motivation paraphernalia that business owners could subscribe to. New posters and cards would arrive monthly that employers could hang up and hand out in the workplace. During the 1920s, the now defunct British printing company, Parker-Holladay created a fictional character named Bill Jones. Mr. Jones’ dispensed his advice to workers on posters decked out with his pointed adages. Bill Jones was found all over the industrialized world where he urged employees to adopt the enterprising attitude that develops success. They addressed everything in a man’s life; how to act, how to dress and look, be punctual and respectful, in general how to live and be a better man.
The Great Depression greatly damaged the classical Self-Made Man. The motivational craze fizzled after crash in the stock market, and consequently in people’s morale. All of those great posters made, now became tattered transients that collected dust in antique stores and attics. Recently, however, there’s been a renewed interest in pieces of 20th century history such as these. You will see them on traveling exhibitions like PBS’ Antiques road show and auction houses are selling them for thousands of dollars.
In this current economy there is still a need for these today. Not those cheesy ones that you can buy off of the back wall of your local office supply store, but honest and real encouragement with a challenge to be a better man. I get the appeal, the artwork and graphic is top-notch, and while the text can be clumsy, is still inspiring to a man. The advice is pretty timeless and still applicable today. The ads teach the sort of stuff your grandpa would tell you: the ideal of the self-made simple, time-tested principles, which lead to success. In other words these posters are the embodiment of how to be swell.
(Images courtesy of: allposters.com,rockwell-center.org)
- Northland Poster Collective (kfattah.wordpress.com)