The auction success of a series of 1920s productivity-at-work posters last year flushed out a whole new batch of designs from a collection sold by Ewbank’s earlier this month, netting considerable sales success for the Surrey-based auction house.
The British life-coaching posters sold by Ewbank’s were among many produced by the Parker-Holladay company in the late 1920s, who ran a campaign that, in part, took its cue from the success of the messaging delivered by World War One government propaganda posters.
Released weekly, the Parker-Holladay posters, the illustrators sadly uncredited, feature the character of Bill Jones, a fictional business manager, who dispensed sage advice on everything, from dressing well to avoiding chaos and negative attitudes.
The posters were sold through subscription, and intended to encourage employees – male employees, particularly – to be respectful, to embrace teamwork, and to avoid the impulse to procrastinate.
The poster campaigns were so successful they were repackaged in the United States and Canada, released in North America distributed through Parker-Holladay’s Chicago office. The firm’s American office also created new art for the North American market, as well as Bill Jones trading-sized cards, where he urged employees to develop pluck and a can-do attitude that would, readers were assured, develop success.
Rival companies, offering similar messaging, especially Mather & Company, competed in the motivation message business, their 300-plus Mather Work Incentive posters offered by catalogue, illustrated by some of the best American illustrators of the day, such as Frank Beatty, Hal Depuy and Willard Frederick Elmes.
It’s not clear from available reference just how many of the striking “Bill Jones” posters were actually produced by Parker-Holladay, research muddied by different series and similar numbering for both the British and North American campaigns, but they fell from favour following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
Economic events dealt a heavy blow to the self-made man and his entrepreneurial spirit, who could no longer afford the poster subscription. But motivational sayings are all the rage these days, on plaques, social media, and more, and these posters are, consequently, now quite sought after.
Just under 20 designs, totalling £3000, the original artist, or artists, sadly unidentified, sold in a Ewbank’s Vintage Posters auction last October, including “British and proud of it!”, depicting a battleship ploughing the waves against the backdrop of the Union flag, which sold for £550 in October, more than trebling its top estimate.
But this result was surpassed on 21st January, when more inspirational posters on offer sold for over £11,000.
Top-selling designs included ‘A Winner Never Quits‘, sold for £600, ‘Courtesy Costs Nothing but the Effort’, sold for £520, and ‘Health is Priceless’, and ‘Don’t Resent Being Told’, both sold for £500.
“Colour, action, strong graphic quality and fabulous retro appeal from the clothing and haircuts of those depicted come together to make these sizeable posters very popular,” feels Ewbank’s partner and specialist Alastair McCrea.
Along with some fantastic film posters, other highlights in the auction included a rare London Transport poster from 1926 by Montague Birrell Black (1889-1964), depicting the London skyline and futuristic transport in the year 2026, which sold for £3000.
Bond is Back at Ewbank’s
While the Bill Jones vintage motivational posters clearly have their following, it’s still Ewbank’s regular auctions of film posters that attract most attention from collectors.
The next Entertainment, Memorabilia & Vintage Posters at Ewbank’s takes place on 4th March 2022, and the next Vintage Posters auction on 15th April – but downthetubes readers may be both shaken, and stirred, into investigating the massive James Bond 007 auction on 11th February, which includes film posters spanning the entire run of the secret agent franchise, front of house cards, first editions of the original Ian Fleming novels, rare memorabilia and much more.
Ewbank’s is the premier international Antiques and Fine Art Valuers and Auctioneers based in Surrey, South London, Hampshire and the South East region, holding quarterly Fine Auctions; and regular specialist sales of Jewellery, Silver, Clocks, Watches and Instruments, Fine Art, Ceramics, Antique Furniture and Works of Art. They also hold specialist auctions throughout the year, including Entertainment and Memorabilia, 20th Century Art and Design, Asian Art, Militaria, Garden and Architectural, Textiles, Fine Wine and others. Ewbank’s also hold monthly Antique and Collectors’ auctions.
Once upon a time, there was a little kitten who was hanging in there and gracing office walls everywhere. Long before he got his claws into that rope to motivate employees to make it to Friday, though, companies used a different kind of poster to get workers working — and they learned the technique from the government…
Photographs by Bruce Guthrie from the 2018 exhibition of motivational posters
Today’s business motivational posters – symbolised most prominently by “Successories” – are the butt of many a joke. But back in your grandpa’s day, they were an art form
Printed in Chicago between 1923 and 1929, Mather Work Incentive posters were designed to improve worker productivity and curb turnover during a time of economic expansion and plentiful jobs. The traditional American virtues the posters promote are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago and represent a unique chapter in American advertising and economic history
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.