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Subway poster collection, New York City, 1918-1932, PDF file


7. New York City Subway Posters

To offer a unique perspective on the Twenties, six collections of primary materials are presented in Theme I, each from a single source—newsreels, cartoons, political cartoons, animated cartoons, subway posters, and a 1931 retrospective. We encourage you to mix and match materials from two or more collections as a device for studying the period; a collection discussion guide is offered to stimulate study and analysis. Let's proceed to this section's collection—subway posters.

The New York City subway has taken its place as an icon of Americana—and for subway riders of the 1920s, the company posters displayed in the subway cars and elevated trains became iconic in themselves. Produced by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) from 1918 to 1932, they were intended to promote ridership after the IRT's first competitor, Brooklyn Rapid Transit, opened its first line into Manhattan in 1917. Pasted to the inside of the windows and changed frequently, the "Subway Sun" and the "Elevated Express" posters were designed to capture hurried riders' attention for a quick take on city and national issues, often related to urban life in the rapidly modernizing times.

Presented here are twenty of the 385 21"x16" posters. Imagine reading them while riding the rumbling crowded subway in New York City in the years from the end of World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression. (11 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. What major events and issues of the period were highlighted in the posters?
  2. How did the posters display prevalent attitudes of the period?
  3. How did they reflect a big-city perspective on the "modern age"?
  4. How did they reflect a business perspective on the age?
  5. How did the posters mark the transitions to postwar America and to Depression America?
  6. How did the graphic and text design change over the period? How did these changes reflect the period?
  7. In what ways were the posters entertaining as well as informative or promotional?
  8. Do you think the posters were an effective marketing device for the IRT? Why?
  9. Combine the subway posters with other single-source collections in this Theme, e.g., from another New York City source (New Yorker cartoons) or from another large city source (Chicago Tribune political cartoons). What unique insights can be gained by studying single-source collections from a period? What limits do they present? [See collection discussion guide for THE AGE.]

Framing Questions

  • How are the Twenties immediately familiar to 21st-century observers? In what ways does the decade seem remote and old-fashioned?
  • Identify and explain four characteristics of the Twenties that most differentiate the decade from the 1910s and the 1930s.
  • What are benefits and downsides of snapshot views of a historical period?
  • What research would you conduct to test a hypothesis about the 1920s gained from these snapshot views?


New York City subway posters
11 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Subway poster collection: Interborough Rapid Transit Company Poster Collection (Princeton University Library)

The World's Safest Railroad: How Ivy Lee Promoted New York's Subway System, 1916-1932, online gallery talk (New York Transit Museum)

Interborough Rapid Transit Company, history: 1920s ( from David Pirmann)

– Posters (1920-1924) from the Interborough Rapid Transit Company Poster Collection reproduced by permission of Princeton University Library (Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers).

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