Summer is long gone, and with it have gone the days of leisurely summer vacations. But collectors can recapture these moments and explore the history of aviation with vintage airline travel posters.
The earliest aviation posters, which date to the mid nineteenth century, did not advertise air travel, but the exploits of hot air balloonists. With the introduction of planes in the early twentieth century, posters were an effective means of advertising exhibitions and air shows. During World War I, aviation posters offered a subtle form of propaganda: the novelty and excitement of air travel attracted new recruits, and the military’s large-scale use of airplanes was an imposing sight unto itself. Commercial airlines began using posters to advertise in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s that the airlines started producing posters that advertised both the excitement and comfort of air travel.
Collecting Vintage Airline Posters
For collectors, these collectible posters recapture the excitement and romance of air travel. They are also an interesting way to trace the history of aviation. Collectors often build collections around a specific airline, artist, destination, or time period.
The posters from now defunct airlines tend to be more sought after than those from companies that still exist. Pan American World Airways (PanAm) posters, for example, are particularly beloved. The airline started in 1927 with a single route from Key West to Havana, but soon became the leading international airline in the world, a distinction it held till its collapse in 1991. Unlike other airlines, PanAm created posters for both its commercial and cargo planes. Smaller regional airlines also hold their own allure. Posters from the relatively obscure Jersey Airways in Britain and from Western Airlines and Northwest Orient Airlines in the US all offer charming travel posters. These airlines often have a relatively short history, so their posters can be more scarce.
Some collectors focus on existing airlines. Swissair, founded in 1931 after the merger of two Swiss airlines, has long printed beautiful posters. The airline is a favorite among aviation enthusiasts because it consistently stays at the forefront of technology. Swissair was among the first to use DC-2’s, and it claims to be the first airline to employ stewardesses (1935). And United Airlines has also published a plethora of marvelous airline posters. In the early to mid 1970’s the airline produced a well-known series that evokes American history and freedom.
Meanwhile, a love of a specific destination motivates many collectors to create destination-themed galleries. Tropical locales like Hawaii or Tahiti are perennial favorites, as are more exotic destinations like the Philippines, Bahia, and Korea. Similarly, collectors may focus on an individual aircraft. United Airlines advertised its adoption of the 747 with three-dimensional foam boards.
Caring for Vintage and Rare Posters
Collectors often wonder about the best ways to store and protect their rare and vintage posters. It’s actually perfectly fine to display your posters, so long as you take a few precautions. Use UV resistant glass or Plexiglass to protect your travel posters from damage from both sunlight and fluorescent lighting. If you decide to matte or back the poster, be sure to use only acid-free, archival quality materials. If you frame the poster without a matte, place a spacer between the poster and the frame, so that the poster and the glass are not touching. Otherwise, humidity can get trapped between the poster and the glass, and the poster will get stuck to the glass. Some posters are linen backed for preservation or restoration purposes. Well-executed linen backing can increase a vintage poster’s value, but it’s best done by professionals.
When your collection exceeds your wall space, you’ll need to store your posters safely. Ideally, posters are stored flat in acid-free sleeves, which will protect them from dust, moisture, and decomposition. It’s best to store each poster in its own sleeve; posters can leach chemicals onto one another, causing discoloration and decay. If flat storage isn’t an option, you can roll posters in acid-free tubes. Over time your posters may begin to curl, so you may have to flatten them if you decide to frame, photograph, or sell them later.