Plain Sailing for Women

Three things you might want to know about Tisbury in Wiltshire.  Firstly, it has a very nice rural station, drowsy in the Adelstrop kind of way on a summer’s afternoon.  Second, Mr Crownfolio’s forefathers made the clock in the village church.  Last and probably most interestingly of all for most readers of this blog, it has a second-hand bookshop which is at this moment selling some posters on its website.

Woman's Realm vintage newsagents poster

They’re not the best examples of graphic design you are ever going to find (the one above is probably my favourite of the bunch).  But they are rather interesting, because they’re a kind of poster which doesn’t normally survive.  This particular batch came from the attic of a newsagents.  They would have been changed in the shop almost every week, and the old ones were just obsolete and so thrown away, apart from this one newsagent who clearly stuffed them into the attic for whatever reason and forgot about them.

Christmas disc newsagents poster

So regardless of what you think of their style, they’re probably very rare.  And as such they’re a useful reminder that we just don’t get to see most of the graphic design produced between 1930 and 1960, only a tiny proportion actually survives.

The other important thing to remember is that it does tend to be the good stuff which survives too.  Not only are average posters like these less likely to be kept in the first place, but most of the reference materials available today (I’m thinking about Graphis and the Modern Publicity annuals here) are also only selecting the best.  The mediocre just disappear from the record.  So a cache like this is design history gold dust, regardless of whether you’d like to have them on your wall or not.

Knitting booklet newsagent poster

But there’s more to these posters than just being a sample of the forgotten graphic design of the 1950s.  They also give us a view into the highly gendered world of the decade where men need action and adventure – note also that men are identified with John Bull, i.e. Britain itself.

John Bull poster

While women, separate to the body politic, need only to think about holidays and clothes.

Woman magazine newsagents poster

Woman magazine newsagents poster

Oh, and romance too.

Now the above may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it’s a point worth making because, strangely enough, this kind of gender-defined vision doesn’t actually happen much in posters of the same period, and this is something that I’ve been meaning to comment on for a while now.  In fact the posters of the 1950s are probably aimed more at a neutral audience than even a newspaper is today.

I will expand on all of this in a longer post one of these days*, but just to give you an example, the Guardian illustrated a story about the Ivy on its business pages yesterday with an image of Keira Knightly, who has apparently eaten there now and again.  The presumption is clear, that any reader of these pages, is a man, and so would rather look at Keira Knightly than a picture of some food, a male chef or the front of the Ivy.  So why don’t 1950s advertising posters usually do that?  I genuinely don’t know.

*One of the reasons I haven’t written the post yet is that I have lost one of my key exhibits.  It’s a railway poster depicting a man carrying a tray of tea (including a china teapot) across the beach to his family.  My idea of holiday heaven, but I can’t trace it, so if anyone knows the poster I mean, can you let me know what resort it’s for?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.