Golden Age of Illustration

Golden Age of Illustration  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

Beautiful women waving glasses of beer are always in season.  That’s why you see so many of them on vintage advertising posters today.  Angelic children, animals, trains, and automobiles rank right up there too.

In fact, it was beer, tobacco, whiskey and soft drink companies in the early-20th century that poured the most money into advertising.  They had the biggest budgets.

How do you make your particular brand of brewsky seem superior to the other guys? 


Advertising has played a huge role in defining America as a society of beer drinkers as well as consumers. 

Will Rogers wasn’t far off when he said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don't have for something they don't need.”

Wood, porcelain, tin, paper, cardboard and neon signs have been used to advertise and promote everything from soda and beer to candy and shoe polish. 

In fact, it was beer, tobacco, whiskey and soft drink companies in the early-20th century that poured the most money into advertising.  They had the biggest budgets.

Companies have done elaborate research over the years to try and uncover what hooks people into buying their products.  In the beginning it was a guessing game and they often guessed right. 

Appeal is everything in advertising.  That’s why the most desirable vintage posters and signs today combine graphics, colors and wording to pack the ultimate punch.  Collectors judge potential pieces by how tastefully the product is promoted.

Advertising is basically persuasion and persuasion has evolved into an art form for advertisers.  Add bright colors, interesting graphics and clever wording and you have the makings of a great advertising piece.

Its doubtful early posters and advertising signs were intended to be collectible but they’ve developed into their own art form.  Some of the most popular pieces were made between 1875 and 1925 during the Golden Age of Illustration.    

It was the era of color lithography.  Early colored lithographs that weren’t hand-colored used one or two colors to tint an entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image.  American print shops started applying multiple colors in the 1840s.

Bold, brilliant color explosions resulted that could be seen on products ranging from candy jars, coffee cans and fruit crates to cigar boxes and pretzel tins. Game maker Milton Bradley started his career out as a lithographer.  In the early 1860s, he created and printed a colorful lithographed board game called “The Checkered Game of Life.”

Big names sell.  Recognized poster artists and graphic designers will always command the most interest.  Names like Alphonse Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, Otto Baumberger, and Edward Penfield are a few examples.

Collectors often look for advertising items produced from the late-19th century through World War II.  They appreciate items that have the look and feel of that era. 

Because of their original use advertising signs often have scratches, dents, and rust.  You can expect to see that on a vintage piece.  But condition is everything.  The better the condition, the more desirable. 

One thing to be aware of is reproductions.  If a piece looks brand spanking new, it probably is.

On Jan 8, Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pa., featured a selection of vintage advertising signs and posters in its auction.  


Poster; Budweiser Girl; beautiful girl holding bottle of Budweiser beer; 1907; framed; 39 inches by 23 ½ inches;  $1,035.

Porcelain Bus Sign; Belvedere Transit Company; Dedicated to Public Service; oval sign; circa 1930-40s; 13 ½ inches by 30 inches;  $1,150.

Paper Sign; Clyde S.S. Company; image of ship; Iroquois Liner; framed; 27 ½ inches by 37 ½ inches;  $1,150.  

Porcelain Sign; Real Cigars; Pure Tobacco Nothing More; pictures soldier; 12 inches by 30 inches;  $1,265.   

Heavy Cardboard Sign; New Lebanon Brewing Company; image of beautiful lady holding fan; framed;  24 inches by 18 ½ inches;  $3,163.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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