Vintage Food Posters from America: A Century of Colorful Cuisine

One nation has led developments in food technology more than any other. Whether you love processed foods or you hate them, the USA has been at the helm of “time-insensitive foods”, accelerated by wartime rationing and a growing population. Let’s take a look at how a nation with consumption at its heart has celebrated food in advertising and public education via vintage food posters.

Food Technology at the Turn of the Century through Vintage Food Posters

Around the turn of the century, the USA was driving developments in agriculture: more intensive egg production through the introduction of battery farming, a push towards ever fatter pigs and the popularization of grain combines. And with the hunger for more food came a need for more advertising to sell the associated produce. Many posters at this time would focus on educating the industry, rather than selling direct to consumers. Lightyears away from today’s suggestive advertising that teases salivating audiences with a reminder of an already-familiar tasty treat, posters needed to inform and educate, as well as to pique curiosity, so they would carry a lot of information.

Food as a Weapon in the World Wars

Some of the most frequent vintage food posters to appear at auction are those commissioned by the US government for national wartime nutrition programs. These appealed to people to make careful choices, to grow as much as possible (plant a victory garden), can all you can and exercise general economy in relation to food. 

Deep and dramatic greens were frequently employed in early posters, as the dark background highlighted the light lettering and empty white plate that carry the serious message of food rationing. The same can be said of a poster urging people to eat more fish and ease the demand on livestock during the war effort, as dark tones captured the reader’s attention, while the eye is drawn to the white lettering.

The illustrator John Emmet Sheridan employed tonal contrast to great effect in his memorable Food is Ammunition poster. Soldiers on horseback are silhouetted in the background as part of a dark template with the stars and stripes flying proudly at the top of the poster, showing the patriotic nature of the message that’s asking people to be frugal with food when money and resources were tight.  

Splashes of color proved popular and were employed to advertise the many uses of corn (there are a lot), and despite the seemingly light and playful nature of the poster, which draws attention to an array of delicious food, the poster was produced by the United States Food Administration to highlight the abundance of domestic corn to help keep costs down as part of the war effort. 

The same could be said of a poster urging readers to plant a ‘victory garden’ as the fight during World War II was brought to the home front; light and bright colors were used to convey the message. This hasn’t always been the norm though, as during both world wars more austere colours were used to reflect the serious nature of the posters, as showcased by the 1943 ‘Food is a Weapon’ design urging people against food waste. 

These bursts of fresh, vibrant color proved to be an effective and engaging tool for advertisers, so much so that poster artists were diverted from commercial brands and employed by government to deliver public information messages during both world wars. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the poster for The Spirit of ’18, which used light and fresh colors to carry a serious message of food shortage during World War I.

Teaming bright colours with a dark subject matter, the message of unity is clear, as two generations of farmhands stand side-by-side for the greater good. This also proved to be a popular style during World War II in a poster urging people to team up and keep food prices down for the sake of America’s future. Once again this serious message was paired with bright colors; a brilliant blue and vibrant red to help draw the eye of passers-by. 

Vibrant color to encourage carefree consumption

In the post-war period, the powers that be focused on encouraging economic activity by empowering consumption of a raft of consumer goods, of which food became one. In the years following the end of the war, the bright colors remained in poster advertising, but the serious message didn’t. Gone were the austere tones and in their place were vibrant, carefree colors, a sense of optimism and a choice of delicious food, as consumer options blossomed at a time when the economy was doing the same.

By the 1960s, Technicolor adverts appeared for Red Sail real salmon, Kraft cheese spread, ice cream in a variety of flavours and whatever your imagination could muster without the shackles of rationing (Corn Dogs and Coca Cola), as food shopping become a pastime, instead of a part of the war effort. Who’s hungry?