100 Posters That Changed the World by Colin Salter (Pavilion Books)

The below is an excerpt of four posters featured in 100 Posters That Changed the World by Colin Salter, “a collection of the world’s most memorable, provocative, best-selling and groundbreaking posters.” The book, published by Pavilion, is available online.


Anti-Slavery Campaigns (1788–1865)

Anti-Slavery Poster (© Public domain)

The abolition of slavery in the Western World was a struggle long fought for. In America only a civil war could end a practice many of the nation’s founders firmly supported. In Britain the governing powers were just as complicit, but a poster helped sway public opinion.

It’s a little known fact that in 1315 the King of France outlawed slavery in France. Unfortunately it remained legal elsewhere in his Empire and those of other imperial powers for another five hundred years. The growing sense that slavery was immoral reached a tipping point in the later eighteenth century. Quakers in America and Britain raised their voices in objection and were joined by other nonconformist denominations.

At that time Africans were routinely sold into slavery by other Africans or simply kidnapped by white slave traders and shipped to the New World. There they were auctioned off like cattle and sold on in the same way. Posters survive which announce such sales. In Britain a very different poster appeared in 1788. It was designed to shock, and as such constitutes one of the earliest examples of a poster used as propaganda.

The poster carried the now famous diagram of the slave ship Brookes, packed to the gunwales with 478 slaves in appallingly cramped conditions. The Brookes routinely sailed from its base in Liverpool to the Atlantic coast of North Africa to pick up slaves to trade in North America. The ship was licensed to carry 454 “passengers,” but was known to have carried more than 700 on occasion. Each was given a space six feet long and one foot four inches wide, with little headroom because of the practice of adding extra mezzanine levels between the ship’s original decks.

The Brookes slave ship drawing (© Alamy)

The Brookes poster was designed by Plymouth members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed a year earlier in a printshop in London. It was widely distributed and played a significant role in raising awareness of the issue. Within three years the abolitionist William Wilberforce was sufficiently encouraged to promote a parliamentary bill making the slave trade illegal. It failed, but Wilberforce and his colleagues persisted and in February 1807 Britain at last outlawed the North Atlantic slave trade.

The United States followed suit a month later. But supporters of slavery in both countries were quick to take advantage of the fact that, although importing slaves was now illegal, owning slaves was not. In Britain it took a further Act of Parliament in 1833 to ban slavery itself. In the US the practice continued, sadly, for many more years. In the cotton-growing southern states, slavery was formally legalized in 1850, and the slave population actually increased as the children of slaves were themselves enslaved and traded between owners. It took a civil war to bring about the final emancipation of American slaves in 1865.

France meanwhile had abolished slavery in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, but reinstated it under Napoleon as a way of controlling its colonies. It wasn’t until 1905 that France finally outlawed it in its West African possessions.

Vaccination Posters (1861–1999)

Smallpox Vaccination poster (© Alamy)

As the world has rediscovered during the recent coronavirus pandemic, health matters may require urgent action. If you need to issue an alert, even in the television age, it can be quicker and more efficient to print posters and put them where those affected — or infected — can see them.

In the 18th century smallpox was the biggest cause of death in Europe, taking the lives of 400,000 people a year. Those it didn’t kill were usually left blinded or disfigured. After Edward Jenner produced the first smallpox vaccine in 1796, the government wanted it to be used as widely as possible to bring the terrifying disease under control. Vaccinations were made free for the poor in 1840, and the government passed the Vaccination Act of 1853, which made immunization compulsory for infants in their first three months of life.

The 19th century was an era when the modern state was coming into being, and the vaccination issue provided a focus for anxieties about power, class and liberty, as well as the patronizing bearing of the Victorian medical establishment. Concerned parents feared putting their children through the procedure and other groups felt that mandatory vaccination was a violation of their personal autonomy. Others objected on religious grounds, or in the belief that vaccines were ineffective and based on bogus science. In 1885, 100,000 protesters marched through Leicester and beheaded an effigy of Edward Jenner.

MMR Vaccination poster © Public Health England

As numbers of those taking up the vaccine fell, the government had to increase its efforts to persuade the population of its necessity. Fortunately, those efforts worked. From the 1930s onwards, the disease was virtually nonexistent in the United Kingdom and smallpox was finally eradicated throughout the world in 1977.

In 1998 history repeated itself when physician Andrew Wakefield convinced large numbers of people of a link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine and autism. Wakefield had falsified his test results; his thesis was completely discredited and he was struck off the medical register in 2004. But public confidence in MMR and other vaccination programmes was seriously shaken.

Fearing the loss of the country’s herd immunity to three childhood diseases, Tony Blair’s government set aside millions of pounds to educate parents. As well as posting advice on the internet, it continued a conventional paper campaign of leaflets and posters which had been run since the introduction of the vaccine in 1988, urging parents to “give your child something you never had” — the triple vaccine. Despite the poster campaign, bogus stories have re-emerged on social media and the fact that the WHO have now withdrawn the UK’s measles-free status shows how the disease can spread thanks to the vector of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Careless Talk Costs Lives (1939)

Careless Talk Costs Lives (© Alamy)

At the start of World War II the need for vigilance on the home front was greater than ever. Posters urging the civilian population to watchfulness had to strike a balance between over-authoritarian commands and too-casual advice which might fail to get the message across.

World War II presented new threats. Aerial warfare had come into its own, as both the US and the UK found to their cost in Hitler’s Blitzkrieg on London and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The development of submarine warfare curtailed Britain’s ability to import food and raw materials. And on both fronts the war was a premeditated act in which Hitler and Tojo had had time to establish agents of espionage in their chosen enemy’s territories.

In Britain, some people were open in their admiration for Hitler. Oswald Mosley even imitated him as leader of the British Union of Fascists with his paramilitary force known as the Blackshirts. With all that in mind, and with so many civilians involved in various capacities in the war effort, the “Careless Talk Costs Lives” campaign urged discretion. There were several strands to the campaign and posters placed in and around British ports were sombre graphic illustrations of the danger to shipping. “Never mention ship sailing dates, cargoes or destinations to ANYONE,” they demanded, beneath greyscale pencil drawings of spies in pubs and radio operators in sinking ships.

Those aimed at the general public had a lighter touch, and the best remembered of them were by a popular cartoonist of the day, Fougasse. Fougasse, real name Cyril Bird (1887–1965), was the editor of Punch magazine, a popular satirical weekly publication. His style was instantly recognizable and his series of eight posters about Careless Talk are remarkable for simply presenting his cartoons as they would normally appear in the columns of Punch — unembellished, unframed, the whole thing written and drawn by Fougasse without formal typefaces or government insignia. It was a very direct way of communicating the message.

Keep Mum Loose Talk Costs Lives (© Library of Congress)

Each cartoon showed two people gossiping, with a short punchline: a soldier and his girlfriend, who swears, “Heavens, no, I wouldn’t tell a soul!” while a dog looking suspiciously like Hitler raises an ear; two women on a bus, one reminding the other, “you never know who’s listening!”, while Hitler and Goering are sitting two seats away; a man in a telephone box pleading, “… but for heaven’s sake don’t say I told you!” while surrounded by a dozen eagerly eavesdropping little Hitlers.

The campaign was tremendously successful in getting people not to talk carelessly. Germany became convinced that any information which it did glean from overheard conversations was probably deliberate mis-information and should be disregarded. The same slogan was adopted, with a more direct messaging style, in the US after it entered the war. Fougasse went on to design posters about not wasting wartime resources, and about easing travel on London’s Underground system. After the war he was awarded the civilian honour of a CBE for his contributions.

Stonewall Campaign (2007)

Some People Are Gay. Get Over It (© Stonewall)

Stonewall is a British LGBT rights organization, founded in 1989. By lobbying the public and the British Parliament it has changed the law and people’s hearts and minds, transforming the lives of the LGBT community in the UK.

The organization was named after the riots which followed a particularly violent police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, in June 1969, which galvanized the gay rights movement in the USA. In the UK, Stonewall emerged from the campaign to stop legislation (known as Section 28) introduced by the Conservative government in 1988, outlawing positive discussion of homosexuality in schools.

Although the campaign to stop the legislation failed, a group of active campaigners decided to form a campaign and lobbying group to fight to repeal the law and to ensure such examples of institutional discrimination didn’t happen again. They included actors Sir Ian McKellen and Michael (now Lord) Cashman, journalist Duncan Campbell and senior civil servant Duncan Slater.

Some People Are Gay. Get Over It bus panel (@ Stonewall)

Stonewall lobbied governments and political parties to put gay and lesbian rights on the agenda and used legal action to challenge discrimination. It brought successful test cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which fuelled pressure to change UK laws on the right of LGB people to serve in the armed forces, the equalization of the age of consent and the acceptance of same-sex couples as adoptive parents.

As well as its successful legal challenges (Section 28 was repealed in 2003), Stonewall has campaigned to call out social discrimination and change attitudes to LGBT people. Stonewall’s first and most memorable public campaign was initially aimed at combatting homophobic bullying in schools. Stonewall collaborated with 150 secondary school pupils and teachers to come up with a suitable slogan. In 2007, the “Get over it!” campaign was launched.

Posters on the Tube in London and UK wide on the side of buses proclaimed in black, red and white: “Some people are gay. Get over it!” Not everyone was impressed by the campaign. A Christian “gay cure” group, The Core Issues Trust, created posters parodying the Stonewall posters, but instead promoting being gay as something to overcome: “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!” Transport for London banned the opposing posters on the grounds that they were offensive, a decision supported by a judicial review and ultimately the High Court.

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Colin Salter

Colin Salter is a history and science writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His publications include 100 Speeches That Roused the World, 100 Books That Changed the World, and the Science...