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A Short History of Railway poster design

Vintage -Railway -Posters

To use an old showbiz term successfully running a railway is, quite literally, all about putting “bums on seats” - so advertising has always been important to the industry.

But when did posters for railways become elevated to the cultural phenomenon they eventually became at their height?

image credit: © Copyright Stephen McKay

How did Railway posters start?

Like all things the beginnings of railway advertising were very straight forward very similar to the factual flyers (or handbills) used for the previous main form of transport, the Stagecoaches.

However, Heightened competition between the different railway companies to snag the increasingly lucrative “excursion” train services by the 1850’s led to increased use of advertising

Thomas Cook, for example, started their first excursion service in 1841 and then, in 1851, there was the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 which it’s estimated brought in over 6 million visitors - it was this event that gave rise to the first use of mass advertising!

The Golden Age of Railway Posters

Whilst mass advertising started in the 1850’s it was two decades later in the 1870’s that things really got going with early colour posters appearing - but it was still going to be a slow gradual development

In 1905 the London & North Western Railway commissioned artist Norman Wilkinson to create a bold new version of the railway poster including beautiful landscape painting into the design.

It was only in 1923, when the previously private railway companies were reorganised into “The Big Four” that it became really important to develop distinctive branding - which was most visibly reflected in the posters!

David Bownes of Twentieth-Century Posters says:

'It was really about encouraging what we would call off-peak travel. The railways had a real problem getting people to use the trains outside of commuter times,' says David Bownes, who runs the site Twentieth-Century Posters. 'It's about creating a sense of the day trip at the weekends or a bank holiday trip to the seaside.'

Another driver of this continued boom in railway advertising was in 1939 workers getting the legal right to holiday leave, massively increasing the audience for their product.

Railway companies would club together to commission artist to produce images for their posters like the famous “skipping fisherman” picture by John Hassall.

David Bownes of Twentieth-Century Posters again:

‘…it shows a rather jolly rotund fisherman skipping across the beach at Skegness. It's supposed to give a joyful impression of a day trip to Skegness – that it's healthy and a good day out.'

Classic railway posters today

The railway posters from the 20’s and 30’s still hold a fascination for people today - so much so that the Railway Museum issued a set of reprints of some of the best loved ones during the the May bank holiday period of 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The posters, depicting beautiful scenic travel destinations in Britain encouraging people to visit when all of this is over!

Judith McNicol, Director of the National Railway Museum, said:

“At a time of widespread travel restrictions, we hope that re-creating a selection of the most popular travel posters will enable people to enjoy some of their favourite holiday destinations while celebrating the style and glamour of these works of art.

This is also a way for us to show our support for the nation’s keyworkers, including many of the 115,000 railway workers who are continuing to keep things running during this time.”

If you want to find out more about the history of Britain's Railway posters try reading Dieter W. Hopkin and Beverly Cole's extensive essy The Railway poster in Britain, which was an invaluable resource when writing this article!

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By Stuart Paterson at 10 Jan 2022, 00:00 AM