Vintage Business Motivational Posters from the 1920s & 1930s

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 12, 2012 · 54 comments

in A Man's Life, Motivational Posters

Today’s business motivational posters — symbolized most prominently by “Sucessories” — are the butt of many a joke. But back in your grandpa’s day, they were an art form. Not only that, but motivational posters from the first few decades of the 20th century provide a window into America’s changing idea of manhood.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rapid industrialization in the West transformed all aspects of life, including our concept of manliness. As we discussed in our series on the Archetypes of American Manliness, for most of America’s early history, manhood was rooted in community and family ties, land ownership, and producerism. But as factories and industrial farming put small artisans and independent farmers out of business, men began leaving the family farm and shop in search for work in the burgeoning urban centers of America. Instead of the Genteel Patriarch or Heroic Artisan archetype defining manhood in America, a new archetype took center stage during this time of rapid change: the Self-Made Man.

The Self-Made Man archetype of manliness represented a profound change in how Americans saw manhood. This was when the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideal really took root in the country. Young men who wanted to be a success could no longer hang around the family farm and wait to inherit a piece of land from their fathers or apprentice at the village tannery before opening their own shop. Opportunities were waiting in new businesses and in new places far from home. But to grasp these opportunities required a new set of skills — while their fathers had wrestled with external obstacles in struggling to tame the land, young men looked inward and sought to master themselves. “Harder” skills became less important than personal qualities like thrift, hard work, persistence, and reliability.

Men have always competed with each other for status, and the new way to the top was to climb the business ladder — to become a Titan of Industry and call your own shots.

Helping men navigate this new economy and new definition of manhood were hundreds of self-help books and pamphlets that offered advice on how to be successful in life and in business. The most influential author to come out of this period was Orison Swett Marden who published 19 books with steely titles like Pushing to the Front, Architects of Fate, and The Man You Long to Be (We actually included a few excerpts from Marden’s books in our Manvotionals anthology). Marden’s works redefined manhood in terms of character traits that led to personal success, and his books are filled with essays encouraging men to develop their manhood fully, and to test that manhood by hustling their way to the top.

Which brings us to these motivational posters…

This new, entrepreneurial definition of manhood reached a peak in the decade before the Great Depression. It was a time of idealism and optimism, and people were bullish both about the future of the economy and people’s ability to change their behavior and develop their character. Pithy maxims were popular (for example, Henry Ford was fond of saying, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice”), and it was felt that constructive encouragement could helps folks from any walk of life improve themselves. During this time, businesses began hanging beautifully illustrated posters with the same slogans that authors like Orison Swett Marden shared with readers a decade earlier. There were even trading cards with similar “go get-em” language that were handed out to employees like baseball cards. Business owners hoped that these posters and cards would help boost productivity and morale and inculcate uneducated and immigrant workers with the virile values needed to thrive in the world of business.

Two (now defunct) printing companies — Parker-Holladay Company and Mather & Co. — were at the forefront of this burgeoning motivation business. Both companies created a line of motivational materials that business owners could subscribe to (new posters and cards would arrive each month) and hang up and hand out in the workplace. The two companies hired some of the best illustrators of the day such as Willard Frederick Elmes and Hal Depuy to create these handsome motivational posters.

The Great Depression dealt a serious, if temporary, blow to the Self-Made Man archetype. With the crash in the market, and consequently in morale, the motivational craze fizzled, and the posters produced by Parker-Holladay and Mather & Co. became tattered ephemera that collected dust in antique stores and attics. Recently, however, there’s been a renewed interest in these unique pieces of 20th century history. Traveling exhibitions containing these vintage posters have criss-crossed the country and auction houses are selling them for thousands of dollars.

I can understand the appeal. The vivid artwork and graphic design is top-notch, and while the copy is sometimes ham-fisted, I actually find it inspiring as a man — perhaps because I’m still a believer in the self-made ideal. The advice is pretty timeless and just as applicable today as it was then. The posters teach the sort of stuff your grandpa would tell you: simple, time-tested principles, that if lived, can lead to a life of success.

Below we curated over 70 examples from this golden age of motivational posters. Prepare to be pumped up.

Have You Met Bill Jones?

During the 1920s, the British firm Parker-Holladay created a fictional character named Bill Jones. Mr. Jones’ dispensed his friendly advice to British clerical workers through colorful lithographic posters emblazoned with his get-right-to-the-point maxims. The firm exported Bill Jones to the United States and Canada where he urged employees to develop the pluck and can-do attitude that develops success.

Mather & Company Work Incentive Posters

Inspired by Parker-Holladay’s success with their Bill Jones series, a Chicago entrepreneur named Seth Seiders used his printing company, Mather & Co., to produce a line of “work incentive posters.” Like the “Bill Jones” series, Mather & Co.’s work incentive posters were designed to instill virtues like punctuality, teamwork, and thrift.

Motivational posters from Mather & Co. have become a hot collector’s item today. Original posters are selling for more than a $1,000 a pop!

Motivational Cards from the 1920s

Recently, American art director Steven Heller published a set of motivational cards from the same time period as the Parker-Holladay and Mather & Co. materials on his blog. There isn’t much information about which company produced these, but the artwork and copy is somewhat similar to what you’ll find from Mather & Co. Lots of great items there. Teddy Roosevelt even graces one of the cards.


Check out all the motivational posters from AoM: 

Theodore Roosevelt Edition
George S. Patton Edition
Ernest Hemingway Edition
Winston Churchill Edition (Part I)
Winston Churchill Edition (Part II)
Black History Month Edition
Bear Bryant Edition
Founding Fathers Edition
Band of Brothers Edition
Business Posters from the 1920s and 1930s

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jay September 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Love this.
Do hi-res versions of these posters live anywhere? I’d like to print up a few.

2 KambizAmini September 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for a great article! The posters are very motivational and pedagogical!

3 Josesph McCall September 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm

As a graduate student who is struggling at the moment to get through my Masters Research Project, I really needed this…

4 james September 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm

This is an amazing collection of inspirational posters. Great work!

5 Garret September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Wow! So many good sentiments here. What is really striking to me is how many of these sentiments are clearly true and yet how much effort people today seem to put into trying to avoid acknowledging them.

For example: how many people do you think would express offense at the concept that “tough luck means nothing to real men?” Or “progress depends on men who build?”

I think that if everyone, instead of trying to dance around these concepts, accepted them and learned from them, then we would have a very different looking world – and one much better than our current one.

6 Vincent September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Great post. Keep it up!

7 Eric September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Oh man, what’s the copyright on these bad boys? I’d love to get some printed for the office.

I love the “That’s not my job” poster, particularly.

8 Derrick September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Any chance we could get high res copies of any of these posters?

9 robert September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm

First.

nice i really like these kinda posts where do you find them?

10 Bryan September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Wow, some things never change. They hit the heart of the matter just as much in 2012 as they did in 1920. Do you know if anyone is selling these posters?

11 Brett McKay September 12, 2012 at 7:14 pm

In re: what’s the copyright status on these posters?

I’m pretty sure they’re in the public domain. Most of these were published between 1925-1930. Works published between 1923-1963 with a copyright notice were required to renew their copyright after the 1978 Copyright Act was signed into law. I did a copyright search and didn’t find any registered renewals by the two companies that produced these posters. Consequently, they’re in the public domain.

There are some stock photo companies who claim to own the copyright on them, but I checked and they don’t. I hate when stock photo companies and people do that. I run into that a lot when looking for vintage images for AoM.

In re: where can I get a high-res of these?

Good question. I checked and they’re just not there. The museums, auction houses, and private owners of the original posters have done a good job of not making these fantastic posters readily available to the public. I’m pretty sure it’s to keep the value of the original posters high.

You can buy re-prints of a few of the Mather Work Incentive posters here, but they’re expensive. Between $65 and $140 for a basic18x24 poster.

12 Nathanael J. Putrich September 12, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Brett,
You never fail to amaze me with the material you find. Love the photos and the 1920′s/1930′s culture they mirror. Keep up the great work. I’m on the road to becoming a better man when I read your stuff.

13 Savio M Sacco September 13, 2012 at 1:17 am

Thanks for the inspiring articles. They have helped me a lot since I first bumped into this site.

If we can’t have high resolution versions of the posters, can we at least have the low resolution versions put into a zip file for download? I’d really love to put these pictures as a rotating desktop wallpaper so that whenever I log on to my PC I am sure to one to push me on.

Thanks again!

14 Tony September 13, 2012 at 2:52 am

Great posters and great lessons.

These are from a time when common sense was a lot more common. Now I don’t want folks to think I’m being mean or nothing, but keeping it real, I guarantee some of these posters would hurt most people’s tender feelings these days. Folks would say they’re mean, hurtful or some other nonsense.

I like these posters a lot. And, not to toot my horn, a lot of these posters are very similar to the life lessons/ life advice both my parents have given me (specifically the ones with the themes such as excuses getting you nowhere and laziness at work can get you in trouble).

Thank you for posting these, sir.

15 John Cooper September 13, 2012 at 7:57 am

Thanks for this articles, They have helped me to growth in our mind.

16 Graham September 13, 2012 at 8:37 am

Thanks for sharing a truly inspirational set of posters. For those who are looking for old posters of all types you can find a great selection in the Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Online Catalog which is here: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/

17 Nathan September 13, 2012 at 9:18 am

Another great artice! These are very helpful as my job requires me to help people find work, these make great reminders!

18 DeliBoy September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am

Jay – Check here:

http://www.harn.ufl.edu/americaatwork.html

I’ve had the “Say it With Snap” poster on my cubicle for a while; it never fails to either amuse or annoy visitors.

19 Claude September 13, 2012 at 9:53 am

I WANT THESE POSTERS! I want them in my office for myself and in my man-cave for my son to see. I may have to steal the slogans and make my own posters. Great stuff! Thanks.

20 Auria September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Brett man, this was cool takes us way back.

It’s interesting how time has changed from agricultural and local to industrial and global. And one of the popular trend’s researchers of our time, Gerald Celente, has said that we will eventually will be resorting some of the core values we’ve lost as a country over time. Those values that helped build us up, our roots. For example, local gardens at homes and buying American products or quality products, net necessarily the cheapest product. The posters shared in this write-up reminded me of what I learned from Gerald because these posters are what we all could use now and they are from a previous generation that helped America grow. Just looking at all the responses where people are asking for HD versions of the images to print for themselves is another indicator of it.

Thanks for posting BM.

21 Daniel September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I love these posters. It is funny to see that modern motivational posters haven’t really evolved much and many of these are actually better, in my opinion.

22 Darren September 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm

It’s a pity health and safety only really developed properly in the last 20 years can you imagine if it was taken as seriously back when those posters came out

23 Hartmann September 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm

WiIl someone with the proper skills PLEASE turn these into motivational wall paper?

24 Dan September 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm

There is irony in the fact that I spent 15 minutes reading these at work.

25 DH September 13, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Keep calm and carry on!

26 Colonel September 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Cool posters. One thing I noticed on a few of these which is very much absent from the motivational posters of today is talk of reward. Men getting bonus checks and promotions. The working world doesn’t like that kind of thinking anymore; you’re supposed to be grateful for the opportunity because they’re doing you a favor by employing you.

27 Stever September 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Brett, interesting homework on the copyright question. One thing you said might need a small correction, however. You noted that some stock photo folks were saying they had the copyright to some of these posters. You’re right in a sense that they don’t, but it is quite possible for them to own a copyright in, say, a photographic image that they captured of the original photo. Just like a person who captures a nice shot of, say, the Statue of Liberty doesn’t have any rights to the statue itself, they can own the copyright to the photo that that snapped. Same principle can apply with the stock photo folks. They can’t prevent others from, say, taking pictures of the same source material but they might be able to assert copyright ownership to their own captured images and control whether people make copies of those secondary images. All of that said, a valid copyright also requires some originality, and it’s possible that a simple, mindless image capture of such a poster just doesn’t have enough originality to warrant being copyrightable. Hope you don’t mind the legal yammering – love your articles!

28 Brett McKay September 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

I hear what you’re saying, but these are scanned images; not artistic photographs of the original posters. What I think these companies are doing is trying to use the now defunct “sweat of the brow” doctrine. They’d probably argue they have a copyright of a digital version of the posters because they invested a bunch of money in buying the originals, scanning them, and cleaning them up with photoshop. To them all that investment of time and money gives them a copyright of the digital version.

Problem is the Supreme Court has rejected the sweat of the brow doctrine in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Company. It doesn’t matter how much work or money you invest in reproducing a public domain work (literary or illustrated), you don’t get a copyright for it.

29 Steve Murtha September 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I remember a postcard I bought for 5 cents at the variety store around the corner from the house—when I was a basketball playground/gym rat, growing up in San Francisco—-plain black font on white stock…proclaiming my mantra that lasted more than just a few years….”Winners never Quit—Quitters never win!” It really helped me overcome a lot of obstacles, including “white-man’s disease”, or the inability to jump—I carried my morning paper route’s load of papers on my shoulders/back and tromped around my neighborhood every day at 5:00am, wearing ankle weights—at 6’1″…I could dunk a volleyball by the time I hit high school.

30 Eric September 13, 2012 at 11:12 pm

For those of you that want some of these Amazon has a couple for $5.

31 GCRaya September 14, 2012 at 1:03 am

These are awesome! Thanks Brett!

Thanks Graham and DeliBoy for the links.

32 Dave September 14, 2012 at 7:06 am

Not a dam’ thing in there about how to treat people who work for you – it’s all “message from the boss, see if you can catch me, sucker!” Interesting to compare these to wartime propaganda, in which the message suddenly becomes “all pull together”. It’s a rat-race, until it isn’t, and then it is again, until the next time we’re all in it together…

33 Ara Bedrossian September 14, 2012 at 7:32 am

BRAINS: Be careful with yours around zombies.
:)
I like motivational posters, but I like motivational and engaged managers and friends better. I think the message to ‘stop worrying and do it’ is valuable. With so many options today, we are likely to wait for the perfect opportunity, and never do what we really want.

34 Jake September 14, 2012 at 12:03 pm

These are awesome! I wish there were affordable posters of these that I could buy to decorate my first apartment that I just got!

35 Woody Batts September 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for inspiration! I’m an artist + entrepreneur myself. I would love to make some modern versions of these posters and sell them at a reasonable price!

36 Vert September 14, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I was about to leave a bunch of hard work I had commited to do today for tomorrow until I opened this post. Thanks for the extra motivation!

37 Alejandro September 14, 2012 at 9:02 pm

It’s amazing that, as old as they are, the messages in these posters still ring true.

38 Native Son September 15, 2012 at 8:29 am

One company I used to work for didn’t have a poster, but had this motto for employees, “Work Smarter, Not Harder”.

39 Tim Allen September 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

These prints are AMAZING! I challenge any artists / graphic designers out there to create similiar prints today! It is easy to tell, I like many others out there would pay to get them! Stuff like this cannot be hidden from the public. Especially in todays growing society of ” I want something for nothing!” I would love to get my hands on them!

40 Maicon Sobczak September 17, 2012 at 6:32 am

Incredible quotes. I read and I will read again. Is not a bunch of cheap and worthless motivational posters. They are useful and practical advices.

41 Peter September 17, 2012 at 10:18 am

these are great!
great post.
thanks for sharing!

42 Ted Dubin September 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Wow – what a difference from today: “If it feels good, do it”, “Mistakes were made”, “It’s the 1%’s fault” – our grandfathers would be sickened by some of us today.

We owe so much of what we have to people like those portrayed in the posters and I’m scared we’re blowing our inheritance of civilization.

43 Marcus September 18, 2012 at 11:20 am

Brett, these are great! Thanks so much for posting.

44 Jacob September 19, 2012 at 8:35 am

As a Workforce Development Professional working on the front lines to assist folks in gaining employment, I can attest to the value in these traits far outweighing any skill in one specific industry. Thanks for posting them.

45 Di September 20, 2012 at 1:58 am

Some of them are good, others I cannot put in the same sentence with motivation. Also, not all of them can work in different cultures. I am surprised that only one other person mentions the flaws of those posters. I get the feeling that most readers here are too much into idealising Grandpa.

46 Alex September 20, 2012 at 8:33 am

Hey, these posters are great! I’ve heard people are looking for Hi-resolution versions of these posters, and as a art school grad, with a major of Digital Media, I might be able to help! I can spruce these guys up in Adobe Illustrator if anyone wants. Just shoot me a email at: Lightbody.artwork@gmail.com
Tell me which one you want and I’ll do my best in my free time. (I have a job so it might take a bit) but I’ll recreate it to look as the original,but in Hi-res.

47 WES September 27, 2012 at 7:52 am

Wonder what would the business posters of TODAY would like today?

48 Jean October 4, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I disagree with one poster, though I believe it SHOULD be true:
v14, “Who wants a soft job?”

There is a lot of value in taking and taming a hard job, I agree. However, I think most of the “soft” jobs are the ones that are KEPT during bad times, because they are the jobs concerned with “running” the business. Various EVPs, Division heads, HR, etc – people who may actually do work, but are less than essential to the business of the business.
I’m a performance engineer, working on computer systems to improve performance. Prior to that, functiona automation engineer (wrote programs to test software). We were ALWAYS short-staffed. We don’t/didn’t HAVE meetings, for example – always something needed doing, environment maintenance, code maintenance, pursuing test plan changes, getting access to systems, running tests, evaluating results, reporting results… 60 hours a week? TOO EASY, Drill Sergeant!

Then you hear the “over-worked” HR cruds complaining they had to pay the baby-sitter an extra $X for being a half-hour late… Their fifth meeting of the day went over. But their long lunch was good, they went to the new restaurant and the food was just SO FABULOUS….

Wait a minnit, WTF? Are we producing employees, or SOFTWARE?

(and my personal favorite was one noisy woman who claimed we couldn’t ever fire her because whe was black… So she did next to nothing, but was a VP. Her PEERS told me she did nothing, mind. They were the ones picking up the slack… Male, female, white, indian, black. Hmmm…)

Yeah, soft jobs are expendable, but no one seems willing to EXPEND them. Instead the engineers work 60-80 hours a week, and the VPs of those divisions go home after 10 hours and are then “on call” all night.

We’re now being exploited by some of this, “Shut up and be glad you have a job” attitude.

49 cb October 4, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Some of these are rather dated and in my opinion probably don’t apply in today’s society.

Having said that, most of them are fantastic and I wish someone had shown them to me a long, long time ago.

50 Samuel Archer October 25, 2012 at 8:23 pm

First-time poster here.

I’m just about to start my essay, 2:22am. When up late, one certainly needs some inspiration, especially from a time when men were men and hard workers hard workers. Sometimes I’m lazy; not tonight!

51 Dan September 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Love the posters, but a few of them made me sad. There are people in poverty and despair through no fault of their own and with no legitimate opportunities to pull out of it just by working harder and being more diligent (Southern Sudanese, for instance, or children sold into sexual slavery at a young age). It’s good to recognize that laziness and neglect lead to ruin, but not all ruin is a result of laziness or neglect.

52 Sean E September 15, 2013 at 8:39 am

I was so inspired by these that I used them as decoration for a scratch plate on my guitar. Awesome article.

53 Dave September 16, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I’ve lived my life by most of these principles, and far exceeded anything I ever imagined I would. These are NOT outmoded concepts, but make those conditioned to settle for mediocrity uncomfortable.

54 PatH March 5, 2014 at 7:38 am

“Dan September 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm

There is irony in the fact that I spent 15 minutes reading these at work.”

That is bizarrely amusing for some reason.

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