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25 Beautiful Vintage Theater Posters

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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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