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Early Posters, 1840–1914

Advertising media play a central role in shaping visual paradigms. In 2021–22 a funded project made it possible to inventory all of the posters and poster designs in the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) from 1840 to 1914. Now available online (German only) to researchers, they serve as visual sources of an era characterised by industrialisation, media revolutions and a colonialist worldview.

Some 3800 early posters from the Kunstbibliothek’s graphic design collection were catalogued, scanned, transcribed and indexed by keywords. That undertaking has made the entire inventory of Early Posters, 1840–1914 available for viewing via The Collections Online, the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin’s collections platform. In addition to the website’s new keyword search function, it also supplies short texts on around 1500 posters and provides access to 3200 copyright-free image files, which can also be downloaded. Designers from 16 European countries and the United States are represented. Within this international diversity, the posters present a panorama of visual communication. They illustrate the history of design, advertising and printing at the transition from historicism and Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) to posters of a new sobriety, while also serving as valuable documents of contemporary and cultural history.

The digitisation project was made possible by the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR programme, funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM).

International Poster Art

Among the collection’s treasures are classics of early poster art from France by, for example, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cheret, Eugène Grasset and Adolphe Crespin, as well as from England and the United States by Edward Penfield, Aubrey Beardsley, William Bradley, Ethel Reed and others. Walter Crane and Henry van de Velde represent the Arts and Crafts movement in England and Belgium, while Hendrik Petrus Berlage, Bruno Paul and Peter Behrens are included as forerunners of an objective or realist aesthetic emerging in Holland and Germany. Posters from Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Lands and other European countries illustrate how design trends spread internationally. A good two-thirds of the early posters are of German origin, and many have ties to Berlin. The printing house of Hollerbaum & Schmidt in Berlin, which specialised in and printed over 1,000 of the posters, worked with a staff of modern graphic artists, including Lucian Bernhard, Edmund Edel, Hans Rudi Erdt, Julius Gipkens, Ludwig Hohlwein, Ilse Schütz-Schur and Julius Klinger. The close relationship of art and advertising graphics before 1914 is evident in many early posters. Toulouse-Lautrec worked primarily as a visual artist, as did Henri Evenepoel, Georg Tappert, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein, among others.

Women Poster Designers

The project’s inventory of the posters made it possible to determine the gender ratio among the poster designers for the first time, establishing that only 40 of the 997 names are female. The posters designed by women can be accessed online as a separate collection, making those works particularly visible. Works by Marguerite Burnat-Provins, Grete Gross, Aenne Koken, Florence Lundborg, Lika Marowska, Blanche McManus, Ethel Reed, Julie Wolfthornand others open up an international spectrum. In addition, the online exhibition Verklärt, begehrt, vergessen at the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library), produced as part of the project, features selected women poster artists and sheds light on the multifaceted representation of women in the poster art of their day (German only).

From Idea into Print

The collection of early posters also provides a great deal of information about production and printing processes. Some twenty posters from the years before 1860 illustrate the beginnings of the pictorial poster, which still involved copperplate engraving, letterpress printing and hand-coloured elements. The era of large colour editions began around 1870, as lithographic printing processes became increasingly automated. Fifteen original designs by, for example, Otto Eckmann for Jugend, August Hajduk for Kadewe and Ferdinand Schultz-Wettel for Syndetikon, show the use of original hand-drawn or hand-painted artwork as sources. Duplicates, variants and “avant la lettre” prints (before the text was added) have also been included online to show the various printing stages, image and colour variations, and papers. The posters’ detailed catalogue entries also make it possible to filter by printers or publishers, leading to fascinating groupings.

Products, Inventions and Contemporary History

From Narcoti-Cure to protective gaiters for car springs, the industrialised 19th century brought countless inventions and new products to market that have been saved from obscurity in early advertising media. Well represented among the early posters are advertisements for publications, exhibitions and theatre, closely followed by tourism, festivals and sports. In addition to cultural history, posters also trace past events and political tendencies, ranging from satirical pandemonium to propaganda during the “first month of Germany’s Campaign on the Western Front!”.k

Colonial Contexts

Advertising media around 1900 also reflect the history of the colonisation of the world initiated by Europe and the United States. In the course of digitisation, some 350 posters referring to colonial contexts were identified – from advertisements for “colonial goods” such as coffee, tobacco and rubber to racist depictions of white Europeans as representatives of a “master race”. These objects are currently being researched more thoroughly and given informative texts, with the aim of making them accessible as a separate online data set. This topic will also be accompanied by a online exhibition at the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) as well as a scholarly text examining the influence of early advertising on the dissemination and entrenchment of a colonialist-influenced, Eurocentric worldview.


Beginning in the mid-1880s, examples of contemporary poster art became part of the acquisition programme of the Kunstbibliothek, which then was still part of the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s (Museum of Decorative Arts) teaching institution. Among the first acquisitions recorded were advertisements from France and the United States, graphic art that at the time were internationally en vogue. However, not all the posters were carefully documented. Many entered the collection as “additions”, were inventoried as groups or were not registered at all, making it difficult to subsequently determine their provenance. This project is the first to allow a systematic evaluation of the Kunstbibliothek’s acquisition registers. It has led to the discovery of over 1000 entries on acquisitions, including the collections of Arthur Wolf, Marie Rungs and Walter von zur Westen, and represents a contribution to future provenance research.

The digitisation project was made possible by the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek as part of the Neustart Kultur programme funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM).

Project Coordination: Dr Christina Thomson
Collection: Graphic Design, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Research and Texts: Dr Christina Thomson and Christina Dembny
Team of Cataloguers: Kathrin Barrera Nicholson, Thomas Gladisch, Laura Hesse-Davies, Bettina Klein
Scans: Rainer Baltscheit, Dietmar Katz
Conservational Supervision: Halina Fischer
Technical Implementation: Frank von Hagel, Helen Reich
Cooperation Partner: (De-) Coding Culture, from the museum4punkt0 network
Funded by: Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek / NEUSTART KULTUR programme of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM)
Duration: 1 May 2021 to 18 February 2022