Boston Public Library

American Art Posters 1890-1920

With the invention of lithography in 1798 and its introduction into France and England during the first years of the 19th century, there was an increasing demand for images among the growing middle class. As the technique allowed much larger editions than did the older techniques of woodcut, engraving, and etching, lithography became the technique of choice for reproducing the works of well-known artists and for producing placards that advertised products, theatrical productions, art exhibitions, books, and magazines. The intention was not only to attract customers but also to bring art into everyday life.

By the mid-19th century, lithographic firms had been established in cities across the United States, including Boston, which became a hub for the publishing of illustrated books and magazines. In 1890, the Grolier Club in New York City held an exhibition of French posters, which exposed American artists to the developments in poster art that had taken place in France during the 1880s, led by such artists as Jules Cheret and Eugène Grasset. In 1892, Grasset was commissioned to design the cover for the Christmas issue of “Harper’s Monthly Magazine.”

In the midst of the growing interest in European poster art, Harper and Brothers commissioned Edward Penfield, the firm’s artistic director, to design a poster for the April 1893 issue of “Harper’s Monthly Magazine.” The poster was so successful, Penfield designed a new poster for the May issue, and thus began a collaboration between Penfield and Harper and Brothers that continued until 1899.

Other publishers, including Charles Scribner’s Sons, J.B. Lippincott Company, The Century Company, Copeland & Day, and Lamson, Wolffe, & Co., followed Harper and Brothers lead. Facilitated by advances in printing, they commissioned artists including Will Carqueville, Joseph J. Gould, Jr., Maxfield Parrish, Will Bradley, Ethel Reed, and Louis John Rhead to design posters that often also were used as magazine covers and were offered for sale to collectors.

Between 1893 and the end of the century, the poster movement in America flourished. After 1900, publishers continued to commission posters, but no longer was there the same interest among collectors, and many of the poster artists who had been prominent during the 1890s disappeared from public view. Nevertheless, the posters of the 1890s continue to influence the work of American artists more than a century later.

Boston Public Library Arts Department’s collection of approximately 590 American art posters concentrates on the period of the height of the poster movement during the 1890s and is particularly rich in posters designed by Edward Penfield, Will Bradley, and Ethel Reed. Created by some of the most well-known artists of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, they are important examples of the golden age of poster design. At the same time, they reflect the social and political biases of the period.

The years between 1890 and 1920 were a time of economic and class struggle. Racial and ethnic groups were attempting to assimilate into the mainstream of American life. Women were fighting to gain equal rights, including the right to vote. Some of the posters reflect those struggles in the use of titles, descriptions, and images that are considered offensive by today’s standards due to their racial, ethnic, gender, and class biases. The posters are presented in order to provide an accurate historical picture of the poster industry. However, we recognize that many contain harmful content. We continue to work to present and describe the collection in a sensitive and equitable way.

For further information, please see the Digital Commonwealth Statement on Offensive and Harmful Content. If you have questions or comments about images, language, or other content you consider harmful, or if you have questions or comments about our policies, please contact us at

Critical funding to support long-term preservation of and enhanced public access to Boston Public Library collections, including this one, was provided by the Associates of the Boston Public Library.