From simple, 19th-century woodcut broadsides to modern color lithographs, posters have long been a staple of political campaigns around the world. In the United States, posters for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are widely collected, while some of the most famous international political posters feature the images of leaders such as Stalin and Mao.
Most political posters advertise campaigns for presidential candidates or are produced as propaganda for dictators. There are also general political posters that encourage voting, as well as other prints that champion particular causes or initiatives.
Some collectors covet a certain candidate, like Roosevelt, or a lesser known candidate such as George Francis Train, a millionaire who ran for President in 1872. Others may focus on a particular political party, be it a mainstream one like the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, or lesser-known extinct parties like the Know Nothing Party or George Wallace’s American Party.
Other collectors accumulate posters for specific causes, such as women’s rights (think Rosie the Riveter) and civil rights. On the opposite end of the spectrum are posters that are anti-something. Some famous examples of those are anti-New Deal posters in the 1930s and ’40s.
Political posters are not as widely collected as political buttons, due in large part to their size—it is hard to collect and display a great many of them. Political posters are also sometimes confused with war posters, which are often more graphically interesting and explicit—political posters are often simply depictions of a candidate above or below a catchy slogan.
There are two main types of collectible political posters. Posters that came as newspaper or magazine supplements were often kept by libraries and remain fairly easy to get your hands on. Then there were real campaign posters, posted on fences, telephone poles, and in yards. These were often designed as jugates—two portraits, normally the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, side-by-side—and are considerably more coveted than publication inserts.
Part of the fun of collecting political posters in the United States is the fact that they have been around since essentially the country’s founding. As such, they track its hist...
In the early 20th century, photography began to be used on campaign posters. President Warren Harding’s 1920 election poster, for example, featured a photograph of the republican from Ohio. Still, illustrated posters continued to be popular in the 1920s and ’30s. One famous poster artist of the day was John Doctoroff, who made jugates for Calvin Coolidge and his running mate Charles G. Dawes in 1924 and Herbert Hoover and his Vice-President Charles Curtis in 1928. These were simple pencil sketches of the candidates’ busts with their names written below—no slogan or motto.
One of the busiest producers of photographs for campaign posters was Bachrach, which has photographed almost every president since Lincoln. The company is probably most famous for Louis Fabian Bachrach’s portrait of John F. Kennedy.
Campaign posters that show signs of creativity—from a clever slogan to a nickname for the candidate—tend to be more sought than those that merely show a candidate’s face and name. Posters from the 1950s, for example, that identify Dwight D. Eisenhower as “Ike” rather than by his full name are considered prizes.
Another form of collectible vintage political poster is the foreign propaganda poster. Most oppressive regimes, from Hitler’s Nazi Germany to Stalin’s USSR, have used aggressive propaganda to influence citizens. Hitler not only championed his vicious war causes with posters, he also used posters to castigate U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Hoover Institute, a political think-tank on the campus of Stanford University, houses and archives about 100,000 such political posters, including many of infamous despots.
In recent years, political posters have become more popular than ever. In fact, 2008 marked something of a renaissance for the genre when Shepard Fairey released his famous poster of then-candidate Barack Obama. Based on a newswire photo, the red, white, and blue sheet featured a posterized image of the candidate above a single word, “HOPE.”