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Public Literacy: Broadsides, Posters and the lithographic process

Broadsides and posters are forms of printed ephemera and are historically important to the study of literacy because they represent how the written word has been presented in public to the public. As Richard M. Kolbet (1991) argues “the history and literature of the elite were consciously recorded in printed books, while broadsides and posters, or printed ephemera, more accurately reflected the daily activities of those who shaped history.” Broadsides, posters and printed ephemera are among the richest primary resources for information on cultural, economic, and social customs and traditions as transmitted to the general public. By examining changes made to broadsides and the eventual development of the lithographic process and the poster, one is able to examine how text and writing was present for mass consumption. The following will examine the remediation of the broadside as a form of public literature created by the printing press to the poster created through the lithographic process.

Remediation: Broadside to the Poster

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Like most print media, mass produced posters were dependent on the invention of the printing press (Jung N/A). Initial posters are known as broadsides (or broadsheets) and have more in common with a page of a modern newspaper (minus the images and advertisements).

In Europe and Britain in particular, broadsides were used for public announcements, issue public decrees, new laws and general announcements ( Typically they were produced in large quantities thus reducing the quality of the print but increasing circulation. They were intended to have an immediate public impact and then discarded. Usually published without illustrations or downplaying them in favor of text and vignettes, broadsides were customarily posted in prominent locations for as many people as possible to see. Broadsides were an inexpensive way to reach a wide audience and were a major instrument for communicating before the development of mass media (Mckinstry 2009).

In order to reach the illiterate sections of society those that sold and presented broadsides or broadsheets would often call out the information orally. Other broadsides used stock images created by wood blocks to relay information such as public executions. Generally because of the time and cost of creating wood block illustrations broadsides utilized crude woodcuts, used again and again (


Here is the broadside upon which it was printed. Notice the minimal size of the image and the print to image ratio. John.jpg

Due to the limited space and time to create such blocks printers would use stock images that were small and lacked detail. The inclusion of images created a form of pictographic representation allowed even the illiterate to participate in the print culture. As the National Library of Scotland Word On the Street Website explains printers of broadsides worked on the assumption that the more and the bigger the images they could put on a sheet, the more copies they would sell (

Etching and print making of more detailed images was possible, but this was done mostly by artists as works of art and not for the mass production that would be required for distribution of broadsides, posters, and other ephemeral products. Historically, printing images was accomplished though use of the woodcut, engraving or etching (Bryans 2000). Images could be included in books they were typically added as separated entities to the text. The images were also costly to produce due to the time and expertise needed for production.


It was the invention of the lithographic process by Alois Senefelder of Austira between 1796 and 1800 that help resolve the difficulties of time and effort associated with printing text and images separately (Bryan 2000, p.288). It was not the desire to present images in a social space that drove the creation of the lithographic process. It was a desire to print plays and music and other forms of print that were typically challenging using moveable type, (Bryans 2000, p.288). With the lithographic process printers were able to reproduce the sharp lines of an engraving or the coarse solid effects of a wood cut equally well but in a significantly less time (Bryans 2000). The lithographic process provided a cheap means of reproduction and thus met an increasing demand for all kinds of diagrams and illustrations within scientific and educational books (Bryans 2000).

The inclusion of such images had two significant effects on the education system. Firstly, the reduced costs of including images in books and aided literacy as the growing public education could include images with text, a component for developing early literacy. Secondly, the ability to quickly and accurately create diagrams allowed those studying math and sciences the ability to transfer information at higher rate of speed (Bryan 2000). In turn the sharing of information allowed for greater collaboration to resolve issues find resolution to difficult problems. As Walter Ong supports Bryan’s statement as Ong alludes to the advantages of including visual components with text and attributes the details of images to developing a “hypervisualized” noetic. capable of conveying information in a way unknown to ancient writers. (Ong 2000, p.124). The lithographic process simplified the ability to share the visual images without the need to have detailed engravings created.

In public spaces lithography made images and texts easier to combine and thus facilitated the transfer away from text dominated public literature to one in which text and images were prominent. However, the transition did not occur upon the immediate creation of the lithographic process. “Although lithography was invented in 1798, it was at first too slow and expensive for poster production,” ( It was a second innovation the three stone lithographic process that allowed the poster to become the prominent form of mass communication. With the three stone lithographic posters one could combine words, images and even colour in an economical format for mass consumption. Posters the product of the lithographic process truly came into their own in 1870’s Paris, when they became the dominant means of mass communication and spread rapidly to the growing cities of Europe and America (

Lithography and the posters come of age

Posters like broadsides provided a public form of text, a text that was displayed in the streets of the newly prosperous cities of Europe and America. The lithographic process had allowed artists to combine images and texts in new way that supported each other. Public literature was no longer bound by text itself as it had been with the broadside. Poster presented public information but due to the continued growth of consumer society facilitated by the industrial revolution the poster provided a medium to advertise the goods and services of the late nineteenth-century industrial society (Ansell, J and Thorpe J 1984 pp.8). The ability to present information with the assistance of images allows for greater consumption of text by a wide variety of the population. The writer and the artist were merged through the creation of the poster and text was presented in new and accessible format for a new consumer based society. The once limited images in the broadside now became the dominant feature of public texts through lithography.

Through the poster text became art and a message, a way to not only to communicate ideas, but also aesthetics and goods moving away from the broadsides emphasis on public events and detail. With visual aesthetics taking a leading role in the creation of posters, text was no longer confined to the limits of the moveable type. New fonts, new forms of presenting text could be easily created and renewed with each poster creating a new form of thinking about text. Text became part of the artist’s creation and could be viewed even as secondary in the presentation of information in an urban landscape. This continues to be the case. If one looks at any major city text and images are interconnected connect in artistic ways. Text became art, and was to be consumed in a quick manner with the assistance of the image.

The inclusion of images and text in public areas also increased the amount of accessible environmental print, a key factor in developing literacy. Through advertising campaigns and announcements the poster presented adults and children larger fonts and simple repetitive phrases. With the poster dominating the urban landscape high frequency words were displayed at significantly higher frequency. The poster brought text in an artistic and easily accessible format to the everyday lives of the average citizen and acted as a promotion of mass literacy. As Vacca et al. (2006) describe, “learning to read cannot be limited to experiences with words alone,” ( p. 213). However, with the broadside one is compelled to engage the text to discover the meaning. With the requirement to engage one is moved towards a greater level of literacy. With the poster one can obtain the message with a limited level of literacy. Thus the question becomes which better promotes literacy the broadside or the poster? Arguably the poster promoted early literacy because it is accessible by a larger audience including children and those that may have been excluded from the educational system. While the broadside provided a greater degree or sophistication of literacy the poster helped one obtain a basic level obtainable by a greater portion of the society. Posters made text accessible and to a larger audience and thus provided early and rich experiences with text. The two worked at different levels of the literacy spectrum full and developing. In a social environment reaching for the masses basic or developing literacy plays a larger role in mass literacy than a medium that reaches the fully literate.

The ability to reach a larger population had large political implications. As Ansell and Thrope (1984) describe, “ [b]efore World War I, posters were concerned primarily with promoting consumer products and cultural activities, (pp.8).” It would not be long before governments and political organization realized the power of presenting a message through the combination of text and art. The poster provided an inexpensive means of communicating information to a mass audience. Political message could be threatening to the state but they could also be used to support nationalist movements. One needs only examine the propaganda from the First World War to see the effective means of propagating information through the images and text combined in the poster. The Great War was without the mass media such as radio or television. The poster was able to include a simple text a slogan, and an image to tear at the patriotic hart strings of nations or sell the consumer a basic good.

Both the poster and the broadside brought messages to the public. The lithographic process allowed the message to be transformed from a text based to a text and image based medium. Both posters and broadsides communicate a simple message that met the needs of the culture and the time in which they were present. The poster was not able to modify the social structure alone, but it was able to communicate the issues of the culture in which it was created which in turn shaped a societies future. The poster allowed those that were not illiterate but had limited literacy to participate in the consumption of mass communication a feature that had limited the broadside. The lithographic poster laid the foundation for the creation of the modern advertisements. With the mass production created by the industrial revolution and through the 19th century the lithographic process allowed consumer goods to be presented to the public with limited text and high quality images. The importance of the visual in advertisement led to the creation of specific text and logos and also the form of marketing that we still use today. As a vehicle of public communication the poster educated the masses and kept a society informed of its needs both as citizens and consumers.


Ansell, J and Thorpe J. (1984) The Poster. Art Journal. Spring. pp.7-8

Bryans, D. (2000). The Double Invention of Printing. Journal of Design History Vol. 13 No. 4 pp. 287-300.

Jung, Marshall. (N/A). History of Lithography. Retrieved from

Kolbet, Richard. (1991). Publish & Perish: Printed Ephemera and Social History. Retrieved from

Mckinstry, Richard. (2009). Broadsides. Retrieved from

National Library of Scotland. (2004). Word on the Street. Retrieved from

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

The poster development and social impact. History of Graphic Design. Retrieved from

Vacca, Jo Anne. et al. (2006) Reading and Learning to Read. Sixth ed. Pearson: New York.