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History of Advertising Explored through Medical Posters

on May 21, 2011 – 10:58 am

Cachou Lajaunie ? Recommended for Smokers, Chauffeurs, Cyclists, Etc., c. 1900. Maurice Tamagno,
French, active 1894 ? 1922. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection, 1981.

Boldly claiming cures for all manner of ailments, posters have long been a favorite form of advertising for manufacturers, pharmacies, and quack doctors alike. Bright colors and punchy slogans captured the public’s attention, using humor, satire and caricature to sell products, promote pharmacies, or to warn against social afflictions including alcoholism, marijuana, and venereal disease.

[Dr. Trikos Lotion. Victoria Perfumery, 8 rue Vivienne, Paris, c. 1880. Attributed to Émile Lévy,
French, active c. 1875 - 1895. Published and printed by the Imprimerie Émile Lévy, 13, rue
de la Jussienne, Paris. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection

Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection (April 2 – July 31, 2011) presents some 50 health-related posters, their subjects ranging from medical conferences, good hygiene, and pharmaceuticals to spurious cures. The advertisements are drawn from the personal collection of William H. Helfand, who has been amassing fine prints, drawings, caricatures, trade cards, posters, and ephemera depicting medical subjects since the mid-1950s. The exhibition is drawn from the many generous gifts that he has made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art over the course of more than four decades.

[Image Left: "Botot". Refers to Dr. Julien Botot, an 19th century physician who cared for the French King Louis XV. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]

“Bill Helfand, a longstanding member of our Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Committee, has donated more than 1,600 works to the Museum,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “We are deeply grateful for his generosity, for these gifts have provided a cornerstone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of Ars Medica – prints, drawing, photographs, posters, illustrated books, and ephemera – which is the only one of its type in an art museum in this country.”

[Image Right: International Hygiene-Exhibition Dresden May-October 1911. Internationale Hygiene-Ausstellung Dresden Mai-Oktober 1911. Made in Germany 1911. Franz von Stuck, German, 1863 - 1928. Printed by Meisenbach Riffarth & Co., Berlin-Schöneberg.  Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]

“The posters on view span the widest possible range of subjects, and are a tribute to Mr. Helfand’s tireless passion,” said John Ittmann, The Kathy and Ted Fernberger Curator of Prints. “Many of the graphic images used in these posters seem humorous to us today, but their potency and effectiveness in promoting medical products and health-related agendas was undeniably persuasive at the time of their production.”

[Image Left: Marihuana - Weed with Roots in Hell. Made in United States, c. 1936. Artist/maker unknown, American. Color metal relief print (poster) Sheet: 41 3/4 x 27 5/16 inches (106 x 69.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]


Arranged thematically, the works range in date from an 1846-47 poster advertising quinine “bitters” recommended for treating dyspepsia, to a 1985 poster promoting a benefit concert to raise money for AIDS research.  Helfand’s passion took him from the Print Club on Latimer Street in Philadelphia, to New York print shops, to the rue de Seine in Paris, where he found many of the posters now in his collection.


[The Next to Go Fight Tuberculosis! Red Cross Christmas Seal Campaign Made in United States, 1919. Artist/maker unknown, American. Printed by Sackett & Wilhelm Corporation, Brooklyn, New York. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]

The arresting combination of typography and imagery employed in these printed announcements demonstrates the ingenuity of the 19th- and 20th-century poster designer. The ability of a well-conceived design to drum up sales around the globe is abundantly evident in the range of languages used in the posters on view, which include French, Spanish, Italian, English and German. One of the most striking images is Man as Industrial Palace, a diagram of the human body as an industrial factory, dreamed up in the 1920s in Germany by Dr. Fritz Kahn. Displayed next to it in the exhibition will be an ingenious interactive animated version of the same diagram by modern-day German artist Henning M. Lederer.

[Image Right: Man as Industrial Palace. Der Mensch als Industriepalast. Supplementary folding plate from Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen - Eine volkstümliche Anatomie, Biologie, Physiologie und Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen, Vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Franckh'sche Verlagshandlung, 1926) Artist/maker unknown, German. Color offset lithograph (poster). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]  


To capture the attention of the public, medical posters frequently featured whimsical subject matter such as bears drinking Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral.  These engaging graphics were often the work of anonymous designers, but prominent artists such as Jules Chéret (French, 1836–1932) and Leonetto Cappiello (French, born Italy, 1875–1942) also produced medical posters. It was Chéret’s large, colorful lithographs that elevated the crude commercial placard to the rank of fine art in the 1890s, with depictions of vivacious young French women (modeled after his own wife) that call to mind the popular American “Gibson Girl” of the early 20th century. 

[Image Left: Ayer's Cherry Pectoral - Cures Coughs and Colds, 1898. Edward Penfield, American, 1866 – 1925. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William H. Helfand Collection]

Cappiello’s silhouetted figures demonstrate the beneficial effect of the product being advertised, as in the case of a smiling senior citizen dancing for joy as a result of taking Uricure pills in a 1910 poster promoting this remedy for rheumatism, arthritis, gout and kidney stones.  Whether Uricure was effective is questionable, but Cappiello’s bold approach revolutionized 20th-century poster design with striking graphics and bright colors. 

Other medically themed posters offered a more serious message, such as those that warned about deadly diseases. These were often endorsed and disseminated in government service campaigns, and spared no detail in graphically conveying the potential danger. Posters of this type ranged from admonishments about amoral behavior (an anti-alcohol campaign from 1902-12), to drug use (Marihuana, Weed with Roots in Hell, c. 1936), to an even more serious campaign of the 1930s against syphilis that warned, “Syphilis is a social plague; its victims are beyond number.”

“Most of the posters in the exhibition advertised products that have long since disappeared,” said Innis Howe Shoemaker, The Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. “While advertisements for “Sparklet Nasal” – a hand-held carbon dioxide apparatus said to provide relief from the common cold and the “Genuine German Electro Galvanic Belt” are more commonly associated with quack medicine, the bold graphics, whimsical subjects and large-scale posters provide insight into a history of advertising since 1846.” For more information visit www.philamuseum.org.