For a few months every other year, congressional campaign posters spring up all over the United States. Candidates roll out the taglines and bright colors—harbingers of the primaries and general elections ahead. The modern congressional campaign poster is a familiar sight, but it is nothing like the ones plastered all over town a century ago. There are, however, a few elements that have persisted over the generations.
Posters, from small window cards to giant billboards, were the primary mode of public political communication in the 19th century. Printing technology made several leaps forward during the period, introducing new methods—like lithography and half-tone printing. It became relatively cheap to produce posters with attractive, polished images. Congressional candidates soon seized the new opportunities. They put posters on public fences and walls, in sizes that allowed the passing electorate to read them as they strolled down the street.
By the end of the century, smaller versions showed up in windows of shops and homes, allowing supporters to declare their allegiance to specific candidates. Both broadsides and window cards, as they became known, typically had a picture of the candidate and a simple slogan: “For Congress, Dr. Wm. L. Newell” or “Re-elect MacGregor,” for example.
The ability to reproduce photographic images en masse soon allowed for rich, evocative portraits, and the early 20th century saw posters with swaths of white space and large images of the candidates. Posters like these put the candidate’s face before the voters when he or she was unable to be there. The simplicity and elegance also helped the advertisement stand out in a sea of other postings in the public square. A photograph of a Kentucky general store illustrates how many leaflets and ads found their way to the signboard. Fred Vinson’s election poster is discernible, even at a distance, thanks to its clean, uncluttered design.
Once advertising firms began to drive commercial design in the 20th century, congressional candidates found themselves following the lead of the marketplace. Posters were a crucial element, since they were cheap (a single-color poster cost about four cents to make in the 1920s). They were also effective. One printing company memorably touted its wares with the slogan “Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.” Indeed, industry experts estimated that passersby saw posters more than any other form of advertising. A commercial trend in national poster design that affected congressional candidates was the move toward stylization and simplification. Typefaces became unembellished and even larger. Commercial advertisers used compelling images, but House races kept to photographs of the candidate or no image at all.
The advent of radio and then television changed candidates’ approach to campaigning. Conversational tones, epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” sounded better than stentorian tones and fist-waving speeches. The shift appeared in posters, too. Politicians in 1932 used “large posters on barns, pictures in store and home windows…” the New York Times reported, to reveal not only their policies but also their “philosophies, hobbies and friendships.”
Poster slogans became another way to make a candidate approachable. Congressman Frank Horton cut right to the chase in his tagline: “Congressman Horton Cares.” Longtime Texas Representative Henry González used his nickname and an informal design to encourage voters to “Keep Henry B. in DC.” And Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 poster featured her famous slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Even with technological advances, posters proved surprisingly durable, whether plastered on walls or transformed into lawn signs. Candidates still establish and spread their identity through posters. But now, they find a second life with voters who see them in the news, on television, and through social media. What remains the same, from the 19th to the 21st century, is the congressional poster’s status as part of what writer Susan Sontag called the “theatre of persuasion,” the multitude of voices competing in public plazas and roadsides and windows of each congressional district.
Sources: Steven Seidman, Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008); Jim Sherraden, Elek Horrath, Paul Kingsbury, Hatch Show Print: The History of a Great American Letterpress Shop, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, 2001); Susan Sontag, “Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity,” in Looking Closer 3: Classic Writings on Graphic Design, ed. Michael Berut, Jessica Helfand, Steven Heller and Rick Poynor (New York: Allworth Press, 1999); New York Times, 1 November 1932.Follow @USHouseHistory