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25 Beautiful Vintage Theater Posters

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The great thing about looking at vintage theater posters is that they not only show us the importance of theater in the time before television, but they also show us what captured the interests of people of the time. Of course, the wonderful artwork alone makes these worth a long look.

All images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I don’t know what this 1876 stage show was about, but between the weeping mother and the woman lying in the snow, I’m sure it wasn’t a happy story.

On the other hand, despite the name, this 1879 ad for “Horrors” makes the show look like a blast.

If you like to rock out with your lute, then you no doubt would have loved this 1880 performance of The Celebrated Spanish Students with Abbey’s Humpty Dumpty Combination. That last band sounds like a terrible group of children’s party puppeteers, doesn’t it?

Ooh la la, just look at the cancan line in the ad for the famous Rentz Santley Novelty and Burlesque Co. I don’t know about you guys, but this is the kind of show I’d like to go back to 1890 to check out.

Now here’s an effective ad -- just look at all the drama packed into this one poster. “What does this mean?” I guess the only way to find the answer to that question was to go see “The Cotton King” at The London Adelphi Theatre in 1894.

If you can’t get enough Comedy Central these days, then you probably would have been at the front of the line to catch Selden’s funny farce “A Spring Chicken” back in 1896.

Personally, in 1886, I would have been much more excited to catch “La Dame Aux Camelias,” or The Lady of the Camellias, if only because I’m a sucker for the art nouveau used in this gorgeous poster.

Similarly, I would most likely have gone to see this show based on Percy Shelly’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy” in 1887 just for the fantastic artwork in the ad.

The best thing about this 1897 ad is that it focuses more on the fact the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York all went to see the show than it does on the play itself.

With an ad this charming, it’s hard not to want “The Turtle” to actually be a 1898 story about a cigar-smoking, monocled turtle. It most likely wasn’t, but we can dream, can’t we?

This 1899 ad looks like it could just as easily have come from the side of a traveling funhouse, and that’s exactly why it makes “Hotel Topsy Turvey” look so fun.

Talk about suspenseful. You can be sure the 1899 production of "The Great Ruby" was filled with action if this poster is any indication.

This poster might not be in the best condition, but the artwork and scale are fantastic. Plus, this show is notable, as it was huge. There were 300 people on stage at one point and the production cost $40,000 when it was put on in 1900; that’s the equivalent of a million dollar show today.

No matter how we feel about minstrel shows today, there’s no denying that they were once incredibly popular. In fact, Primrose & Dockstader's Huge Minstrel Company certainly lived up to their name when they built a tent theater that could seat 3,000 people back in 1900.

You’ve no doubt heard tales of how much went into making the film version of "Ben Hur," so just imagine how big a stage show that featured the famous chariot race must have been when it was performed back in 1901.

Americans were fascinated with the Wild West around the turn of the last century, so it’s no wonder that stage shows like “An Arizona Cowboy” found a way to cash in on the trend.

At the same time, more and more people were turning to Spiritualism in the hopes of reconnecting with their long-lost loved ones. Houdini was one of the biggest challengers to the movement, but he still knew his escape act was what would get people through the door -- so in 1909, he did magic, illusions and a bit of fraud-busting all in one great show.

While Houdini is the most famous illusionist from the last century, Thurston was actually the most famous magician during their lifetimes. His act was so big that he even required eight train cars to transport all the pieces of his road show.

Fans of Boardwalk Empire probably recognize the name Hardeen, as the characters discuss his show quite a bit, but for most people, the name of Houdini’s less famous brother probably doesn’t ring a bell. In fact, Hardeen often introduced himself to people as “Houdini’s brother.” Of course, after Houdini’s death, those who wanted to see the master’s act had to settle for Hardeen, and as this 1936 ad points out, he did inherit all of his brother’s props.

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration strived to help employ people in their respective fields, which not only meant hiring photographers to capture the lives of those affected and workers to improve public parks, but also hiring actors to entertain the public and artists to make posters promoting their shows. While the artist who made this 1936 poster remains unknown, the artwork is simply amazing.

Similarly, the modernist style that Harry Herzog used in this “Injunction Granted” ad from 1937 is striking in its wonderful simplicity.

This 1937 “A Hero Is Born” poster looks like it belongs in a modernist version of Aladdin, except that the hero's clothes wouldn’t quite fit in.

The black inkwork on goldenrod and the clean style make this wonderful “The Cat and the Canary” poster from 1938 look like it would fit in just perfectly with a classic Monopoly set.

The use of simple, flowing lines and a soft color palette makes this 1939 poster for “Androcles and the Lion” incredibly powerful. Heck, I’d go see the show today if it used this artwork.

This “A Christmas Carol” might just be the least Christmasy artwork ever made to promote the story. Not that the artwork is bad by any means, it’s just not at all what most people think of when they remember the story line. One has to wonder if the 1940 production itself was this modernist as well.

Which of the shows would you go see? Was your opinion based on the artwork? And what is your favorite style of the many used here?

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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10 Fun Facts About Play-Doh
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As any Play-Doh aficionado knows, September 16th is National Play-Doh Day! Let's pay tribute to your favorite modeling clay with some fun facts about the childhood play staple that began life as a cleaning product.

1. IT WAS FIRST SOLD AS WALLPAPER CLEANER.

Before kids were playing with Play-Doh, their parents were using it to remove soot and dirt from their wall coverings by simply rolling the wad of goop across the surface.

2. IF IT WEREN'T FOR CAPTAIN KANGAROO, PLAY-DOH MIGHT NEVER HAVE TAKEN OFF.

When it was just a fledgling company with no advertising budget, inventor Joe McVicker talked his way in to visit Bob Keeshan, a.k.a Captain Kangaroo. Although the company couldn’t pay the show outright, McVicker offered them two percent of Play-Doh sales for featuring the product once a week. Keeshan loved the compound and began featuring it three times weekly.

3. MORE THAN 3 BILLION CANS OF PLAY-DOH HAVE BEEN SOLD.

Since 1956, more than 3 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold. That’s enough to reach the Moon and back a total of three times. (Not bad for a wallpaper cleaner.)

4. IT USED TO COME IN JUST ONE COLOR.

Photo of child's hands playing with Play-Doh clay
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Back when it was still a household product, Play-Doh came in just one dud of a color: off-white. When it hit stores as a toy in the 1950s, red, blue, and yellow were added. These days, Play-Doh comes in nearly every color of the rainbow—more than 50 in total—but a consumer poll revealed that fans' favorite colors are Rose Red, Purple Paradise, Garden Green, and Blue Lagoon.

5. FOR QUITE SOME TIME, DR. TIEN LIU HAD A JOB SKILL NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD COULD CLAIM: PLAY-DOH EXPERT.

Dr. Tien Liu helped perfect the Play-Doh formula for the original company, Rainbow Crafts, and stayed on as a Play-Doh Expert when the modeling compound was purchased by Kenner and then Hasbro.

6. YOU CAN SMELL LIKE PLAY-DOH.

Want to smell like Play-Doh? You can! To commemorate the compound’s 50th anniversary, Demeter Fragrance Library worked with Hasbro to make a Play-Doh fragrance, which was developed for “highly-creative people, who seek a whimsical scent reminiscent of their childhood.”

7. HASBRO RECENTLY TRADEMARKED THE SCENT.

Anyone who has ever popped open a fresh can of Play-Doh knows that there’s something extremely distinctive about the smell. It’s so distinctive that, in early 2017, Hasbro filed for federal protection in order to trademark the scent, which the company describes as “a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”

8. IT CAN CREATE A PRETTY ACCURATE FINGERPRINT.

When biometric scanners were a bit more primitive, people discovered that you could make a mold of a person’s finger, then squish Play-Doh in the mold to make a replica of the finger that would actually fool fingerprint scanners. Back in 2005, it was estimated that Play-Doh could actually fool 90 percent of all fingerprint scanners. But technology has advanced a lot since then, so don’t go getting any funny ideas. Today's more sophisticated systems aren’t so easily tricked by the doughy stuff.

9. IT HOLDS A PLACE IN THE NATIONAL TOY HALL OF FAME.

Unsurprisingly, Play-Doh holds a coveted place in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. It was inducted in 1998. According to the Hall of Fame, “recent estimates say that kids have played with 700 million pounds of Play-Doh."

10. YOU CAN TURN YOUR PLAY-DOH CREATIONS INTO ANIMATED CHARACTERS.

While Play-Doh may be a classic toy, it got a state-of-the-art upgrade in 2016, when Hasbro launched Touch Shape to Life Studio, an app that lets kids turn their Play-Doh creations into animated characters.

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