The movie poster date back as far as the motion picture itself and why shouldn’t they? Signs for events have been needed since antiquity but the paper poster first came into prominence only in the early 1800s. And it started with an actor or rather an failed actor: Johann Alois Senefelder.

Senefelder was getting ready to study law when his father, a prominent actor in Prague, suddenly died. In an attempt to support his mother and eight siblings, Senefelder tried to step into his father's shoes as an actor. He couldn’t replicate his father’s success but draw of theater was strong. Senefelder was also a playwright and he turned to publishing. He found better luck there seeing some success in his first published play: Connoisseur of Girls.

But getting something published in 1790s was expensive and Senefelder’s next publication took him into debt. So Senefelder put his mind to figuring out a new inexpensive way of printing.

One day in 1795, Senefelder’s mother called to him asking him to write down a list of items she was sending out to laundry.

Having no paper, Senefelder took a grease pencil and wrote the list on a flat limestone slab that printers use to mix ink on. Then on a hunch, Senefelder decided to etch the stone with acid - and sure enough the list written in grease remained on the stone.

Senefelder was onto something - and after a year of perfecting the process, he joined up with some music publishers and began producing musical scores with this much cheaper process he called “stone printing”. But the process would be better known by its French name: Lithography


It wasn’t just musicians that took to lithography: because the stone plate is prepared by directly drawing on the stone using familiar artist tools like pencils and crayons, artists took to lithography as early as 1803.

Senefelder kept perfecting process. After his death, others like Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse in France added color with chromolithography.

Sample of Choromolithography from 1872

So by the time we get to protofilm in the 1890s with magic lantern projection shows, lithography and poster making was a fully mature industry and artistic medium. Here a beautiful litograph by French artist, color lithography pioneer, and some say father of the poster, Jules Cheret for the magic lantern show “Projections Artistiques” in 1890. He would later go on to make another highly regarded poster for Theatre Optique’s program called Pantomines Lumineuses.

And now we get to the poster I use over and over again in these courses to represent the Lumiere Brothers groundbreaking first ever commercial public film screening on December 26, 1895 in the basement of the Grand Cafe in Paris.

This poster illustrated by Marcellin Auzolle depicts a scene from the film L'Arroseur arrosé - the Sprinkled Sprinkler marking the first time a poster was used not only to advertise a film but to advertise a specific film and even the first time a movie scene was depicted in a poster.

Across the pond in the United States, as Thomas Edison consolidated his control and standardized the newborn film industry in the late 1800s and the turn of the century, he standardized the movie poster as well. The One Sheet - 27 inches wide by 41 inches tall became the standard dimension for Hollywood movie posters shown inside and out of the movie theater. Variations came with the one sheet from the 3 sheet poster, 6 sheet poster even up to the 24 sheet billboard style poster which measures about 9 feet by 20 feet.

Now keep in mind, this is era of single screen venue - from nickelodeons even moving into the movie palaces of the 1910s, these theaters only had one screen which they would show only one preset program of films. So when a theater played a certain movie - the entire advertising for that theater was dedicated to just that one film. To complement the movie poster which was posted on the outside of the building, a variety of smaller advertising sizes popped up from the Window Card which measures 14 x 22 to the lobby card which featured scenes from the film and printed at 11 x 14 card stock and usually displayed as a set of eight.

Other sizes like banners, door panels, and Subway Sheets have also evolved as promoters saw their need

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