American made: Mather workplace posters

This 1923 Mather & Company poster is certainly timely this holiday weekend: ‘All Who Work Seriously Celebrate Labor Day.’ Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions

NEW YORK – Because workplace communication today is primarily digital – with many employees working remotely – you would be hard-pressed to even find a bulletin board or communications posted on company walls. The Chicago firm of Mather & Company, however, carved out a niche for itself in the 1920s with motivational messaging for use in the workplace that focused on training employees to have a strong worth ethic and promote leadership and teamwork.

Boasting colorful and strong lithographed images with catchy graphics, Mather and its poster artists created such memorable posters as Diving for Success, Worry Bags No Game featuring a rhinoceros standing guard, and Are You Feeling Fit? Much like the U.S. government created a powerful campaign during World War I to get citizens to buy war bonds using compelling posters featuring Uncle Sam, Mather created dynamic Art Deco-style posters and small cards, meant to sit on employees’ desks, that sold values and ideas, rather than specific products. Mather designed, printed and sold workplace incentive posters to companies and factories that were meant to improve sales, increase productivity, reduce costs or workplace injuries and improve the general morale.

A 1929 Mather work incentive poster, ‘Out In Front,’ by an unknown artist, realized $1,800 + the buyer’s premium in May 2014 at PosterConnection Inc. Photo courtesy of PosterConnection Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

While the messages on these posters seem dated today, they fit in perfectly during the “Welfare Capitalism” era, whose ideals were espoused by President Calvin Coolidge in a 1929 speech. Speaking to a group of newspaper editors, he declared “The chief business of the American people is business … The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.” These posters certainly reflect that idealism and a corporate desire for employees to perform their best for their companies.

“In the early 1920s, salesman Charles Howard Rosenfeld proposed a series of motivational posters for workers to Charles Mather, who worked for his family’s Chicago printing house,” according to a blog on the Duke University Libraries website. Reportedly, more than 300 unique variations of these so-called “Constructive Organization Posters” were sold to businesses between 1923 and 1929 on a subscription model. The campaign ended abruptly with the stock market crash of 1929. Companies usually changed out their poster displays weekly. Mather salesmen would eagerly promote their value to firms, offering such claims as a poster could save a “10 cent leak per work per day.”

This Henry Lee Jr. poster for Mather, ‘Heading Ahead,’ 1929, brought $450 + the buyer’s premium in September 2016 at Potter & Potter Auctions. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The firm would tell potential clients: “No matter what posters you select for display … morale will be improved, turnover reduced, loyalty stimulated, results and greater profits insured for your firm,” according to the National Museum of American History.

After World War I’s end, the economic landscape and workforce in America was changing greatly as more people immigrated to the country and these posters could visually break language barriers to effectively communicate key ideas. Interesting to note even as immigrants and women joined the workforce in increasing numbers, these posters largely depicted white men, yet served as a guide for how all employees should conduct themselves on the job.

Whether marketing their posters to factory foremen or business middle management, Mather’s sales team, under the direction of company president Seth Seiders, hit the road to thousands of companies, from Kodak to General Motors. They carried with them a full-color catalog of images of what was currently available, comprising nearly 80 posters styles and talking points about the posters.

Hall Depuy’s poster ‘Wish or Work,’ 1929, printed by Mather & Company, Chicago, 43½ by 36 inches, earned £850 ($1,074) + the buyer’s premium in December 2016 at Bloomsbury Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Outstanding American artists such as Willard Frederic Elmes and Hal Depuy were commissioned to boldly employ familiar images such as speeding trains, running football players and mischievous clowns alongside simple and direct headlines,” according to the International Poster Gallery, which mounted an exhibition of these posters in 2008.

Depuy’s 1929 poster, Over the Plate!, taps into its audiences’ tastes. The monochromatic image on a bright yellow ground, depicts a baseball pitcher mid-throw with the subtitle, “Winners never have to say they’re good, their work proves it … Results Talk.” Several of Elmes’ posters were meant to call out unproductive workplace behaviors, as in He Merely Struts, which symbolically uses a peacock to encourage employees to work cohesively as a team.

One of many workplace motivational posters Mather printed is ‘He Merely Struts,’ which measures 39¾ by 33¼ inches. It sold for $2,000 + the buyer’s premium in April 2018 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

While these posters and imagery initially seem a bit dated, with their homespun platitudes and idealism, on closer reflection, their current relevance grows. The challenges facing workers today are as notable as they were a century ago when these posters were first made. Perhaps messages like “Who Said ‘Can’t’ / Someone is always doing something someone else was impossible …” will come back in style.