Say it with snap!: Workplace motivational posters from the 1920s

by Stephanie Zillman05 Oct 2012

It’s not difficult to imagine the barrage of eye-rolling, sniggering and gossip that would ensue if HR pinned up posters encouraging workers to ‘be a tight wad’ or to ‘be bigger than the situation’.

Yet back in the 1920s and 30s, printing companies made a tidy business out of selling motivational posters to companies looking to rouse their workforce. In the post-World War One period it was common for companies throughout the UK and the US to pin posters sporting ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ style messages to boost productivity and morale, and many would also hand out trading-card sized versions of the posters offering titbits of advice on how to be successful in life and in business.

One well known character in particular graced hundreds of posters – ‘Bill Jones’ was created by British printing firm Parker-Holladay to spruik admirable qualities to workers such as teamwork, punctuality, loyalty, and safety. The firm later exported the character to the US and Canada, urging employees to develop the ‘go-get-em’ attitude that fosters success.

The Great Depression and the onslaught of WWII dealt a blow to the motivation craze for several decades, but recently there’s been a renewed interest in these unique pieces of 20th century history. Traveling exhibitions containing these vintage posters have criss-crossed the US and auction houses are selling originals for thousands of dollars.

Popular blog The Art of Manliness recently compiled a collection of examples from this golden age of motivational posters*.

Here are some of HC’s favourites:

*Posters are in the public domain