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Hang in There, Baby: A History of Cheesy Motivational Posters

It’s the iconic motivational poster: an adorable kitten dangling precariously from a bar, or branch, or clothesline, with the words “Hang in there, baby” scrawled across the top. If you’re of a certain age, there’s almost no doubt you’ve seen an image like this tacked up on the ceiling at your dentist office, or hanging on the wall at the doctor. Everyone knows about it; everyone jokes about it. But although that acrobatic cat is the most well known, the history of motivational posters actually goes much further back, all the way to World War I.

After the United States joined the conflict in 1917, the government devised a plan to use posters to get more people involved in the war effort. It was a wildly successful campaign. The posters worked so well to mobilize people to join the Army ranks, in fact, that private companies took note. They’d been struggling through union- and labor-based disagreements with their employees and realized hey, maybe this tactic would also work for us.

It started with little cards for workers’ desks in 1923, called “constructive organization posters.” The postcard-size motivations were sold on a subscription basis to companies from a printing house in Chicago, the Mather Company. With these cards, employers could encourage their teams to stop gossiping (“Movers-up discourage idle talk”), celebrate the new year by welcoming a fresh start (“good-by grouches, good-by bad habits,”), and remember important things (“Always carrying out instructions invites more important duties; forgetting makes poor records”). The subscriptions ran for about six years, and over the course of the program, more than 300 cards were created.

But then the small motivational cards went large-scale. In 1925, two employees from Mather broke off to create their own business, C.J. Howard. They printed the constructive organization posters in a larger format, renaming them “action posters.” A new company joined the scene as well, Parker-Holladay Co., and it had a secret weapon to make even more people purchase their posters: Bill Jones.

Bill Jones was a fictional, fatherly character designed to share the wisdom he supposedly learned on the job with workers everywhere. He introduced himself in the first poster in the line, which says “Hello everybody! I’m here to show you how to get the most out of life. Accept my philosophy in the right spirit and you’ll find the answer to many of your problems.” The poster was signed by the fictional man himself, and every motivational poster from the company after that carried the “Bill Jones” signature. Throughout his “career,” Jones shared such nuggets of wisdom as “disorder and neglect are the bosom friends of waste,” “extra effort is the difference between winning and losing,” and “Mr. Better-Late-Than-Never is never on time for promotion.”

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, these workplace motivational posters largely disappeared. But the thought behind them carried forward into World War II, with propaganda-based political posters again becoming the motivational posters of the time. Here, we met Rosie the Riveter, encouraging us all: “We can do it!”

Motivational posters lost their luster after World War II until 1971, when we met that daring, dangling cat. The poster was created by photographer Victor Baldwin, when he took his cat Sassy out for a photoshoot in the mid-1960s. It originally was in black and white, and showed Sassy chinning up on a bamboo pole. Baldwin included the photo in a book called “Outcast Kittens,” and made the poster after fans of the book started requesting the image separately. It became one of the best-selling posters of the next decade.

In 1985, motivational posters made a resurgence the world over, thanks to a new company called Successories launched by entrepreneur Marc Anderson. Successories posters all follow the same design formula — the one we mostly think of now when we imagine a cheesy motivational poster. There’s a main image with an inspirational bold headline (“Make it Happen,” for example), and below that, a few words of explainer text (“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen,” a quote by basketball great Michael Jordan), and the entire package is surrounded by a solid black border. Throughout the 1990s, the poster line became essential office decor. There were even kiosks at malls around the country selling the posters.

Successories was wildly popular, launching motivational posters and their format into pop culture. Sure, the clichés found on them can be cheesy — but the messages are still important. In fact, the popularity of these cards and posters through the years shows just how powerful motivational quotes can be, given the right context.

Photo credit: s-dmit/ iStock

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About the Author
Jennifer Billock
Jennifer is a writer, traveler, witch, and unapologetic Chicagoan. @jenniferbillock
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