Vintage Mather works posters helped spark Welfare Capitalism

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byJim Lapides and Norah Guignon
©International Poster Gallery

Mather Work Poster - Worry Bags No GameWillard Elmes, “Worry Bags No Game,” 1929. Evoking the courage of hunters like Teddy Roosevelt, this poster inspired workers and managers alike – and seems as relevant today as in the Roaring Twenties.

Printed in Chicago between 1923 and 1929, Mather Work Incentive posters were designed to improve worker productivity and curb turnover during a time of economic expansion and plentiful jobs. The traditional American virtues the posters promote are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago and represent a unique chapter in American advertising and economic history.

While the posters can be seen as workplace propaganda or camp Americana, they are perhaps most importantly viewed as a visual expression of the idealism and optimism of the rising nation. President Calvin Coolidge pithily summed up in two sentences the ideology of the era in his 1925 speech to the society of American newspaper editors: “The chief business of the American people is business … The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

This attitude sparked a movement known as Welfare Capitalism, in which employers voluntarily offered incentives such as reduced hours, higher wages, health insurance, and paid vacations in return for greater productivity and worker loyalty, while blunting the arguments of labor unions and socialists.

Charles Mather, a Chicago-based printer seeking to use up excess capacity, saw opportunity in the movement and started selling factory owners subscriptions to his series of bold and beautiful color lithographic posters. The annual “campaigns” found ready acceptance in a workplace accustomed to Madison Avenue advertising techniques in government production posters recently seen

Mather Work Poster - No Wealth Like HealthAnonymous, “No Wealth Like Health,” 1927. Beautiful, tapestry-like backgrounds gave the 1927 series its characteristic home-spun look.

during World War I. Mather’s series however, was the first widespread employer-sponsored program with the goal of corporate success and employee development.

Outstanding American artists such as Willard Frederick Elmes and Hal Depuy were commissioned to boldly employ familiar images such as racing trains, running football players and mischievous clowns alongside simple and direct headlines.

Mather’s artists were heavily influenced by the Plakatstil, or “Poster Style,” made famous in Germany by Lucian Bernhard and Ludwig Hohlwein. The clean lines of the 1929 Mather posters in turn anticipated the streamlined Art Deco designs that would dominate the next decade.

 

A classic example of the Mather style is “The Perfect Finish” (1929), by Frank Beatty. With its depiction of a sailing crew hard at work during a boat race, and its copy warning “No job’s done till it’s all done,” the poster succinctly communicates the importance of carrying a job through to completion.

Mather Works Poster - Touchdown Keep Clear of GangsHal Depuy, “Touchdown!” 1929. Depuy’s hard-to-find and beautiful poster skillfully used a runner fending off a tackler as a metaphor to encourage workers to steer clear of gangs.

Employers changed the posters weekly based on current events, holidays or factory problems. A catalog organized the posters by theme, with cautionary categories ranging from laziness, responsibility, mistakes, and rumors to fire prevention and even practical joking. With their fresh graphics, surprising metaphors and over-the-top but thought-provoking platitudes, the posters demanded attention.

Mather created approximately 350 different images in seven annual campaigns before the series ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October of 1929. By January 1930, jobs were increasingly hard to find, and employers did not have the funds or the need to motivate workers as they had in the Twenties and the application of these posters in the workplace ultimately dwindled.

Today, they are widely collected as icons of this industrious era, and serve as a reminder of the unwavering American work ethic.

 

 

 

Norah Guignon studied art history at University of Pittsburgh and completed her graduate studies in cultural heritage management in the United Kingdom. She is the Gallery Manager of International Poster Gallery.

Mather Works Poster The Perfect FinishFrank Beatty, “The Perfect Finish,” 1929.  Teamwork is the theme of this 1929 poster, which was inspired by the upcoming America’s Cup race.

Jim Lapides studied art history at Yale University and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. His lifetime passion for posters led him to open International Poster Gallery in 1994.

About the International Poster Gallery
International Poster Gallery was established on Newbury Street in Boston in 1994. It is one of the world’s leading galleries specializing in vintage poster art. The gallery includes an inventory of more than 5,000 fine posters from around the world.

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More Images:

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Anonymous, “Jumpy?” 1929. Humor was used to brilliant effect in this delightful reminder to keep things in perspective.
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Anonymous, “The Blind Trail,” 1927. The pioneering spirit is evoked in this cautionary poster about rumors. Farm and frontier scenes appear regularly in the Mather series, reflecting the fact that many urban workers had just come from rural areas.
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Anonymous, “Anybody Can Tear Down,” 1924. The explosive growth of America’s cities provided the perfect visual metaphor for this early Mather poster’s message.

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