Aviation posters date to the mid-19th century, when promoters touted exhibitions of aeronautical feats by balloonists. Early in the 20th century, aviation posters heralded the introduction of new planes at air shows and exhibitions. Some collectors also seek out war posters from World War I, which was the first time airplanes were used on a massive scale by the military, as well as posters from the 1930s, when the first commercial airlines appeared.
Most aviation posters, though, were produced during the 1950s and ’60s, when the advent of commercial air travel prompted airlines to promote the comfort and excitement of flying, as well as the destinations, rather than the airplanes themselves. Collectors often accumulate vintage aviation posters by routes, airlines, or a particular poster designer.
The most desired vintage aviation posters are those for defunct air carriers. For example, ever since TWA (Trans World Airlines) was acquired by American Airlines in 2001, the value of its posters has risen dramatically. One particularly attractive TWA poster advertises the company’s flights to Chicago by showing the Chicago Art Institute and the Magnificent Mile.
While TWA’s departure from the aviation market is relatively recent, some collectors covet posters of long-gone airlines. Pan-Am (Pan American World Airways) is one airline that made many posters that are loved by collectors today. Founded in 1927 to fly just one route—Key West to Havana—Pan-Am became the leading American international airline, a title it would hold until it folded in 1991.
The extent of Pan-Am's service—and posters—was as far reaching as any airline in the world. Not only did the company fly passenger planes, it also had a fleet of cargo planes, which had their own posters. One limited-edition Pan-Am poster from 1938 shows a plane flying over Egypt above a pack of camels in the desert. It reads, “For quick results—ship by Clipper Cargo… There’s no business in slow business.”
Other defunct airlines whose posters are popular with collectors include B.O.A.C. (British Overseas Airways Cooperation), which was the British state airline from 1939-1974, and B.E.A. (British European Airways), a British air provider from 1946-1974 until its merger with B.O.A.C. and Eastern Airlines.
Though not be as widely desirable, there are plenty of posters advertising existing airlines that are aesthetically pleasing and popular among collectors. Swissair, for example, which was founded in 1931 after two Swiss airlines merged, has printed beautiful posters for years—likely in large part due to the beautiful mountain scenery that the landscape of Switzerland affords...
In typical Swiss fashion, Swissair was at the forefront of aviation technology. It used the Lockheed Orion plane to fly a Zurich-to-Munich route as early as 1932, and a Zurich-to-London (via Basel) connection by 1935. It was also one of the first airlines to utilize the DC-2 aircraft, and claims to be the first airline to use stewardesses (also in 1935).
British Airways (which was the result of the merger between B.O.A.C. and B.E.A.), KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), and Air France have all created stacks of collectible travel posters over the years. One great example from 1963 is a series of abstract images produced by Guy Georget for Air France, advertising flights to Great Britain, Mexico, Greece, and Spain.
When it comes to airline posters in the United States, none rival American Airlines. Although many of its posters advertising domestic routes to, say, New York or Chicago are fairly common and thus not that highly sought, American’s international-route posters are quite rare. An example is the overwhelmingly-green American Airlines poster advertising its routes to Ireland—this emerald gem was designed by avant-garde poster artist Edward McKnight Kauffer in the last years of his life.
Other popular destination-specific posters include the early Jersey Airways posters, which are incredibly collectible despite—or, perhaps, because of—the relative obscurity of this U.K. airline. Jersey Airways offered service to Jersey from London and Southampton, and its posters showed planes landing on the beach amid bikini-clad women. Obscure airlines such as Braniff Airways, Air Afrique, and Imperial Airways also produced memorable designs.
Interestingly enough, posters that simply show beautiful panoramas of a faraway destination are not desired for their own sake. Instead, the most sought-after aviation posters tend to be those that show the plane itself in the image, and not just the plane’s exterior but its interior, as well.