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March 22nd, 2011
History of Advertising Explored through Medical Posters 1846 to Present

Press preview: April 1, 2011

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.

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.

“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.”

“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.”

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 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.

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.

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.”

The exhibition coincides with several international medical conventions in Philadelphia scheduled during April and May 2011.

The Museum’s Ars Medica Collection was launched in 1949 with support from the Philadelphia-based pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French Laboratories (now GlaxoSmithKline), which continued to support the collection’s growth for four decades. Comprised of prints, drawings, photographs, posters, illustrated books, and ephemera covering a broad array of medical topics, it now includes some 3,000 works of art on paper and is the only collection of its type housed in a major art museum.

Published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection (ISBN978-0-87633-231-3; $18), written by Innis Howe Shoemaker, The Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; John Ittmann, The Kathy and Ted Fernberger Curator of Prints; and William H. Helfand. It consists of 60 pages with color illustrations and features an interview with William H. Helfand.

Location: Berman and Stieglitz Galleries
Curators: Innis Howe Shoemaker, The Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and John Ittmann, The Kathy and Ted Fernberger Curator of Prints
Dates: April 2 – July 31, 2011


The accompanying catalogue was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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