TO CAtch an eye: THE RISE OF the commercial poster

An Online Educational Experience Using the New York Public Library's Digital Collections


This online exercise introduces students to American commercial posters from the turn of the twentieth century, in order to explore the beginning of advertisement as art and to illuminate how social needs and attitudes inform those advertisements. The NYPL's Digital Collections: Poster Collections form the basis for the exploration. These collections offer a look into American consumer history and a moment in time of art history, focusing particularly on poster art for popular consumer goods, magazines, and newspapers.

In this educational experience, students are asked to combine the styles seen throughout the online collections with items found in their current lives, and to create their own posters out of that combination.

The goal is to create a low-stakes and low-key creative experience that asks and allows students to reflect on choices made in art and advertising and how these choices fed, and continue to feed, back into American history.

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Students should be able to:

  • Compare, contrast, and identify elements of twentieth century posters that have influenced commercial art today

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the influence of current events and social attitudes on what and how products are advertised

  • Exhibit familiarity with using digital archives and with the scope of NYPL's online collections

before the activity

Before beginning this online experience, students should prepare by reading the following articles:

the experience

Lesson Plan

Audience: A high school American History class, 2D-drawing art class, or equivalent

Type of Experience: Synchronous; No attending librarian

Duration of Experience: 50 minutes

5 minutes: Watch introduction video to NYPL Digital Collections and navigate to Poster Collections site.

40 minutes: Activity

  • 10 minutes: Brainstorm

  • 30 minutes: Drawing exercise

5 minutes: Take the activity survey and post creations to social media.




  1. Look around the place you are participating in this exercise from. Try to find or think of one of each of the following:

      • An item/product you think you took for granted before the social distancing orders, or look forward to being able to use once the orders are lifted

      • An item new to your environment because of the social distancing orders

      • An item through which you consume information (news, entertainment) during or about the pandemic.

  1. Explore the following sub-collections within the Poster Collections:


  1. Combine your brainstorm with what you learned from the pre-activity reading. Draw 2 posters (feel free to draw more if you find you have extra time) that incorporate the items you've gathered with the art and advertisement styles of the posters in the NYPL's collections.



Reflect on this activity in a 1-2 page response. Consider the following questions when summarizing your experience:

  • How have commercial posters and their art style changed over time? How have they stayed the same?

  • Put yourself in the shoes of a general American consumer around 1900. What items would you have been tempted to purchase based on the posters you saw today? What do you think that consumer would think of commercial art today?

  • What were you surprised to see advertised on posters in the collection? Was there anything you were surprised that you didn't see?

  • Was there anything you found unexpected about the way newspapers and magazines were portrayed on posters? Can you think of any similarities with newspaper and magazine covers today?

  • Take a closer look: Who is portrayed in these posters, and who isn't? Who are these posters, and the products they represent, for? Did you see any depictions that reflect old-fashioned attitudes?


Share your creations on social media! Be sure to use the hashtag #NYPLposters on your posts and tag @NYPL when sharing on Twitter and Instagram. We can't wait to see what you create!

What did you think?

Please fill out one of the following surveys to let us know what you thought of this online lesson!

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Working within the NYPL Digital Collections: Poster Collection, there has been emphasis placed on the following collection groupings:

Follow along: #NYPLposters & @NYPL


Maddy Newquist is a MSLIS graduate student at Pratt Institute's School of Information and is pursuing a career in public librarianship.

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