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A (Brief) Survey of Campaign Posters Throughout Election History: Printmaking history

By Elena Johnston

With the current election, there has never been a better time to examine how print culture has played into politics, specifically through posters. Posters are one of the main advertising tools. A good poster can be the face of your campaign, and so they are crucial to political strategy. The design should reflect that values of the subject while still being appealing to voters. The poster is a quick, effective way to convey what the candidate’s main goals are. Campaign posters have long been used throughout US and world history in general, but for the sake of today’s article, we will be looking at eight iconic posters that have defined American political history. While these posters are iconic, this small collection is just a sampling, there are thousands of campaigns posters! We will also be only looking at campaign posters as protest and other political posters are too extensive to cover here!

1. Grand National Democratic banner. Peace! Union! and victory! (1864)

This poster depicts the Democrats running against Lincoln in the 1864. The print is highly stylized and detailed with the portraits of the candidates. American iconography is also shown. The two figures clasp hands, showing political unity in the time of the civil war. The cornucopia also represents the era of prosperity that the country was going into. The actual print was published by Currier & Ives publishing company and is a watercolor lithograph.

Image credit: Google Images

2. Keep Cool with Coolidge! (1924)

Although not as detailed as the 1864 poster, Coolidge’s poster still relies heavily on American iconography as he sails a metaphorical “ship of state” with lady liberty. It is also an early example of campaign slogan’s which would become used on nearly every political poster from now on. It was published by T.J Honaker but little details about the actual production of the print were discovered during research.

Image credit: Google Images

3. I want you, FDR. Stay and finish the job! (1944)

Using the symbolic character of Uncle Sam, this campaign poster makes an effective appeal to the voters by using a popular American figure. Here, like the Coolidge poster, “Stay and finish the job” acts as a campaign slogan that easily catches the voters eye. Unlike previous posters, however negative space and less details allowed for the poster to viewed at quick glance. This poster is a chromolithograph and wascreated by artist James Montgomery Flagg.

Image credit: Library of Congress

4. Bobby is my choice (1968)

With bold uses of color and a silly caricature, this poster was used to appeal to young voters. The use of the word “Bobby” makes the candidate seem relatable and the pop art, almost psychedelic style show the culture at the time of the election while easily catching the voter’s eye. While there is some traditional American colors, very little iconography was used, perhaps suggesting a new era of America. It is a silkscreen poster and created by Holyoke, Massachusetts press.

Image credit: Library of Congress

5. Jesse Jackson ’88 (1988)

This campaign poster was a departure from traditional styles. Showing the candidate frankly, with few details and no campaign slogan allows the voters to focus solely on the candidate. The bright yellow color, however, was eye-catching and another departure from the traditional red, white and blue. The black outline also indicates Jackson’s race, and his wish to be the first black president. While he was not successful, this campaign poster is striking. It is a silhouette print with the artist unknown.

Image credit: Library of Congress

6. W. (2004)

Simple and realistic. This is the only photographic print on this incomplete history. The use of just the simple initial “W” acts as a way to distinguish him from his father, the former president. Theuse of the one character could also symbolize the familial dynasty, everyone knew who the Busch family was, only a letter was needed. The profile view also seeks to humanize him after 9/11. It is a photomechanical print with the artist unknown.

Image credit: Library of Congress

7. Hope (2008)

This poster of President Obama is now regarded as iconic but was originally created by an unknown street artist and it eventually became the official campaign poster. Shown with American coloring and the word “Hope,” the poster shows a hopeful America. Following 9/11 and about to enter a recession, hope was something America craved and with this simple, yet effective design provides a glimpse to a more hopeful future, one where a black man would be president for the first time. The poster is a highly stylized pencil drawing and was created by Shepard Fairey.

Image credit: Library of Congress

8. Biden/Harris (2020)

And finally, the most recent campaign poster. Showing both Biden and Harris, the importance of the first female vice president is clearly shown. This is also the first campaign poster on this list made for the web, as it links directly to information on the candidates. The quote on the poster provides hope in a time of great distress and change. It is a digital poster, artist unknown.

Image credit: Google images

As we transition to the Biden/Harris administration, it is important to look back at previous ones and see how far we have come. And like the Obama poster represents, have hope.

For more information:

Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art by The Library of Congress (available in paperback and for kindle)

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