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Made in America

Made in America: The Mather Work Incentive Posters

Beatty, The Perfect Finish
Frank Beatty, 1929.
Teamwork is the theme of this
poster, taking its tack from the
interest generated by the upcoming
America's Cup defense against the
British.

Depuy, Over the Plate
Hal Depuy,  1929.
In the era of Ruth and Gehrig,
lessons from the baseball diamond
were clearly understood by all.

Anonymous, Jumpy
Anonymous, 1929.
Mather used humor and surprise,
plus a stunning visual, to make this
poster's message irresistible.

Anonymous, You are Proud of America
Anonymous, 1929.
This inspirational and patriotic
poster was designed to be
displayed during the week of
July 4th.

Anonymous, The Blind Trail
Anonymous, 1927.
The pioneering spirit is evoked in
this cautionary poster about
rumors. Farm and frontier scenes appear regularly in the Mather
series, reflecting the fact that
many urban workers had just
come from rural areas.

International Poster Gallery is proud to present Made in America: The Mather Work Incentive Posters, an exhibition of striking and unique American posters from the Roaring Twenties. Printed in Chicago between 1923 and 1929, the color lithographic posters were designed to improve worker productivity and curb turnover during a time of economic expansion and plentiful jobs.  The traditional American virtues the posters promote are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago and represent a unique chapter in American advertising and economic history.

While these original vintage posters can be seen as workplace propaganda or camp Americana, they are perhaps most interestingly viewed as a visual expression of the idealism and optimism of the rising nation. President Calvin Coolidge pithily summed up in two sentences the ideology of the era in his 1925 speech to the Society of American Newspaper Editors: "The chief business of the American people is business...The chief ideal of the American people is idealism." 

This attitude sparked a movement known as Welfare Capitalism, in which employers voluntarily offered incentives such as reduced hours, higher wages, health insurance, and paid vacations in return for greater productivity and worker loyalty, while blunting the arguments of labor unions and socialists.
 
Charles Mather, a superb Chicago-based printer seeking to use up excess capacity, saw opportunity in the movement and started selling factory owners subscriptions to his poster series. The annual "campaigns" found ready acceptance in a workplace accustomed to Madison Avenue advertising techniques in government production posters recently seen during World War I.  Mather's series however, was the first widespread employer sponsored program with the goal of corporate success and employee development.

Outstanding American artists such as Willard Frederic Elmes and Hal Depuy were commissioned to boldly employ familiar images such as racing trains, running football players, and mischievous clowns alongside simple and direct headlines.  Many of Mather's artists were heavily influenced by the "Plakatstil," or Poster Style, made famous in Germany by Lucian Bernhard and Ludwig Hohlwein. The clean lines of the 1929 Mather posters in turn anticipated the streamlined and dynamic Art Deco designs that would dominate the next decade.   

Artist Frank Beatty's "The Perfect Finish" (1929) depicts a sailing crew hard at work during a boat race. The subtitle, a classic example from Mather's lexicon, warns, "No job's done till it's ALL done," succinctly communicating through word and image the need for teamwork to beat the competition.

Also featured is Hal Depuy's poster featuring bold imagery from America's favorite pastime, baseball.  "Over the Plate!" (1929) depicts a pitcher in mid-throw and states, "Winners never have to say they're good - their work proves it.  RESULTS TALK."  The baseball metaphor plays directly to the American worker, who knew the difference between a pitcher who throws balls or strikes.

Employers changed the posters weekly based on current events, holidays or factory problems. A catalog organized the posters by theme, with cautionary categories ranging from laziness, responsibility, mistakes, and rumors to fire prevention and even practical joking. With their fresh graphics, surprising metaphors and over-the-top but thought-provoking platitudes, the posters demanded attention.

Mather created approximately 350 different images in seven annual campaigns before the series ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October of 1929. By January 1930, jobs were increasingly hard to find, and employers did not have the funds or the need to motivate workers as they had in the Twenties. 

"Our exhibition of Mather's posters is timely as we reexamine our national values in this election year," comments gallery owner Jim Lapides.  "Even today we are struck by their graphic beauty, old fashioned American imagery and homespun wisdom. Although they reflect on an era with different challenges, their message of idealism and working smart is both refreshing and inspiring."

View All Mather Posters

Gallery Exhibition

Click here to view images of the exhibit in our Newbury Street gallery.

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