Modern Pin-Ups: The Resurgence of Vintage Travel Posters

Modern Pin-Ups: The Resurgence of Vintage Travel Posters

From the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to Washington DC’s Library of Congress, collections of such pin-ups number in the thousands. Here we explore the return of old-school posters.

This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia

tourism posters are back – and not just Blu-Tacked to
students’ walls. These vibrant calls to adventure rake in serious
money. In 2016, a 1934 print advertising Gstaad sold for £64,000. Two years earlier Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge lithograph went under the hammer
for £314,500. From the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to Washington DC’s Library of Congress,
collections of such pin-ups number in the thousands.

Of course, they were never meant to be high art. Consider the
lifespan of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper compared to that of
a Brighton Beach poster which, after a few weather-beaten weeks, is
torn down or covered up by its successor. Unlike paintings in a
museum, posters can be easily copied and disseminated for mass
consumption. Plastered across picket fences and brick walls,
stations and tunnels, they are only ever intended as promotional

Yet in today’s burgeoning vintage poster market, those themed
around travel are among the most sought after. But why? If posters
are mementos of happy vacations, how can we justify those from
places or eras we’ve never encountered? Perhaps they’re merely an
affordable way to decorate our home. Perhaps we hold them up out of
reverence for the past. Or perhaps we use them to escape from the

Tracing the evolution of the travel poster cannot be done in
isolation from the deep-rooted history of poster-making. As long as
there has been something to sell, man has found a way to promote
it. Ancient Egyptian business owners chiselled their profession on
the side of their shops. In Rome, terracotta slabs advertised bath
houses and taverns. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in
the 1440s resulted in handbills for Shakespeare’s plays, while the
game-changer came in the late 19th century with the streamlining of
chromolithography by Parisian Jules Chéret, the father of the
poster. His three-stone printing technique enabled economical yet
eye-catching publication and ushered in the modern age of

By the turn of the 20th century, the poster craze had consumed
Europe and the US. Busy thoroughfares became veritable galleries
with placards for bicycles and bullfights, elections and absinthe.
Such was the demand that fine artists – Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec,
Alphonse Mucha, Eugène Grasset – pursued the medium in earnest.
Exhibitions of posters were held. Collectors’ clubs formed. Art
dealers stole banners or bribed those employed to paste them up.
Periodicals recorded the latest poster developments. Young lovers
sent each other symbolic prints.

Small wonder that from the late 1800s to the early 1970s posters
and print ads were just the ticket for travel companies to attract
customers. Whether designed for Pan Am or the Orient Express,
posters charged with air and glamour came to define the language
and trends of tourism. Indeed, the work of the prolific American
poster artist David Klein spearheaded the jet-set lifestyle – in
1957 his New York City design for Trans World Airlines was the
first of its kind to become part of the Museum of Modern Art’s
permanent collection, thus cementing the elevation of the poster
from ad to art.

Viewed as historical artefacts, travel posters offer a window
into the past. They reflect the ebb and flow of artistic styles,
from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, Cubism to Postmodernism. “Pop Goes
the Poster” declared San Francisco’s Post in 1968 in response to
the latest psychedelic craze. They are relics of shifting societal
values too. Later prints began to sell sex, humour and fear.
Despite cross-pollination, distinctive national styles and
characteristics became apparent. France was all about cafés and
cabaret, while the Brits pinned up sunny images of the seaside and
circuses. Dramatic Italian posters focused on fashion and opera,
while German trade fair advertisements took their cue from medieval

What’s more, travel posters let us trace the footprints of
technological change. They bear witness to the introduction of
photography in the 1920s and computer graphics in the 1980s.
Indeed, posters’ mid-century decline in popularity can be
attributed to the new era of mass-market magazines, radio and
television. Early pieces often displayed the mode of travel too;
once newfangled steamships, trains, Zeppelins and planes were as
exciting as far-flung destinations.

With 21st-century eyes it’s easy to be wonderstruck by the
Golden Age that travel posters depict. But will our
great-grandchildren romanticise self-driving cars the way we do
steam trains? Why do we perpetuate a rose-tinted view of the past?
It speaks to the power of wishful thinking that those pearly smiles
and wholesome families in Britain’s 1950s seaside posters
proliferated at a time when the country had lost nearly half a
million people in the Second World War and food rationing was yet
to end. In a show of the Western narrative’s power, 1920s posters
with hula girls in coconut bras and grass skirts beckoned
holidaymakers to the Land of Aloha while silencing the decimation
of the indigenous Hawaiian population. It’s an idiosyncrasy played
upon by Unknown Tourism, a series of vintage poster-style images by
Expedia UK which pays tribute to creatures – Steller’s sea cow,
dodos, the golden toad – now extinct thanks to human activity.

Whatever the reality, in our mile-a-minute age of existential
and environmental threat we gaze back towards an era that, in our
collective imagination, is perceived as being safer and simpler.
While we stride into the future, one foot remains rooted in the
past, seeking comfort in the familiar and ensuring we don’t lose
some essential part of ourselves. It’s telling that posters popular
in the vintage travel market aren’t just those for glamorous
destinations. Today many people may holiday overseas, but posters
for the less-fashionable Blackpool, Skegness and Bognor Regis
regularly sell for around £5,000 at auction. They express not just
our desire to escape our immediate physical environment but our
temporal one too. These vintage pin-ups are a way of saying bon
voyage to the present.

It’s unsurprising that this wistful mindset is being exploited
by savvy marketers. Nostalgia sells and the travel industry has
shrewdly jumped on the bandwagon. Both SpaceX and Nasa have
reimagined interstellar destinations – Mars, Europa, Titan,
Jupiter, Enceladus – modelled on travel posters from the 1940s and
1950s. In celebration of its centenary, the US National Park
Service created a series of ten prints based on the iconic posters
by the Works Progress Administration under FDR’s New Deal. In 2017,
luxury travel brand Belmond launched the Art of Belmond campaign,
taking its cue from Golden Age images of yesteryear. A series of
stickers and posters for its hotels, trains, river cruises and
safari lodges evoked what its Senior Vice President for Brand and
Marketing, Arnaud Champenois, deems “contemporary nostalgia”.

In the same way that bell-bottom jeans and wartime slogans –
“Keep Calm and Carry On” – have been recycled, so travel posters
are being enjoyed beyond their expiration date. Inhabiting a
liminal space between art and artefact, they hold up a mirror both
to our fluctuating society and to ourselves. Perhaps we’re longing
for a past that never was – or perhaps we’re longing for a future
that can never be.

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