2,200 Radical Political Posters Digitized: A New Archive


I recent­ly heard some­one say his col­lege-bound nephew asked him, “What’s a union?” Whether you love unions, loathe them, or remain indif­fer­ent, the fact that an osten­si­bly edu­cat­ed young per­son might have such a sig­nif­i­cant gap in their knowl­edge should cause con­cern. A his­toric labor con­flict, after all, pro­vid­ed the occa­sion for Ronald Rea­gan to prove his bona fides to the new con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment that swept him into pow­er. His crush­ing of the Pro­fes­sion­al Air Traf­fic Con­trollers Orga­ni­za­tion (PATCO) in 1981 set the tone for the ensu­ing 30 years or so of eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, with the labor move­ment fight­ing an uphill bat­tle all the way. Pri­or to that defin­ing event, unions held sway over pol­i­tics local and nation­al, and had con­sol­i­dat­ed pow­er blocks in the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal land­scape through decades of strug­gle against oppres­sive and dehu­man­iz­ing work­ing con­di­tions.

In prac­ti­cal terms, unions have stood in the way of cap­i­tal’s unceas­ing search for cheap labor and new con­sumer mar­kets; in social and cul­tur­al terms, the pol­i­tics of labor have rep­re­sent­ed a for­mi­da­ble ide­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge to con­ser­v­a­tives as well, by way of a vibrant assem­blage of anar­chists, civ­il lib­er­tar­i­ans, anti-colo­nial­ists, com­mu­nists, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, paci­fists, fem­i­nists, social­ists, etc. A host of rad­i­cal isms flour­ished among orga­nized work­ers espe­cial­ly in the decades between the 1870s and the 1970s, find­ing their voice in newslet­ters, mag­a­zines, pam­phlets, leaflets, and posters—fragile medi­ums that do not often weath­er well the rav­ages of time. Thus the advent of dig­i­tal archives has been a boon for stu­dents and his­to­ri­ans of work­ers’ move­ments and oth­er pop­ulist polit­i­cal groundswells. One such archive, the Joseph A. Labadie Col­lec­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Library, has recent­ly announced the dig­i­ti­za­tion of over 2,200 posters from their col­lec­tion, a data­base that spans the globe and the spec­trum of left­ist polit­i­cal speech and iconog­ra­phy.


We have clev­er­ly-designed visu­al puns like the Chica­go Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World poster just above, titled “What is what in the world of labor?” Pro­mot­ing itself as “One Big Union of All Labor,” the IWW made some of the most ambi­tious pro­pa­gan­da, like the 1912 poster (mid­dle) in which an “Indus­tri­al Co-Oper­a­tive Com­mon­wealth” replaces the tyran­ny of the cap­i­tal­ist, who is told by his “trust man­ag­er” peer, “Our rule is end­ed, dis­mount and go to work.” In this post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary fan­ta­sy, the IWW promis­es that “A few hours of use­ful work insure all a lux­u­ri­ous liv­ing,” though it only hints at the details of this utopi­an arrange­ment. Up top, we have an ornate May Day poster from 1895 by Wal­ter Crane, hop­ing for a “Mer­rie Eng­land” with “No Child Toil­ers,” “Pro­duc­tion for Use Not For Prof­it,” and “The Land For the Peo­ple,” among oth­er, more nation­al­ist, sen­ti­ments like “Eng­land Should Feed Her Own Peo­ple.”


“While all of the posters were scanned at high res­o­lu­tion,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic, “they appear online as thumb­nails with nav­i­ga­tion to zoom.” You can down­load the images, but only the small­er, thumb­nail size in most cas­es. These hun­dreds of posters rep­re­sent “just a por­tion of the mate­r­i­al in the Labadie Collection”—named for a “Detroit-area labor orga­niz­er, anar­chist, and author” who “had the idea for the social protest archive at the uni­ver­si­ty in 1911.” You can view oth­er polit­i­cal arti­facts in the UMich library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here, includ­ing anar­chist pam­phlets, polit­i­cal but­tons, and a dig­i­tal pho­to col­lec­tion. The col­lec­tion as a whole gives us a poten­tial­ly inspir­ing, or infu­ri­at­ing, mosa­ic of polit­i­cal thought at its bold­est and most graph­i­cal­ly assertive from a time before online peti­tions and hash­tag cam­paigns took over as the pri­ma­ry cir­cu­la­tors of pop­u­lar rad­i­cal thought.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic (where you can find some oth­er big, visu­al­ly strik­ing posters)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Red Men­ace: A Strik­ing Gallery of Anti-Com­mu­nist Posters, Ads, Com­ic Books, Mag­a­zines & Films

Won­der­ful­ly Kitschy Pro­pa­gan­da Posters Cham­pi­on the Chi­nese Space Pro­gram (1962–2003)

Free Online Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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