In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess that I have long been a sucker for the golden age of travel posters. To me, they evoke a time, almost a century ago, when travel was actually exciting and adventurous, before metal detectors and security lines — and before you had to take your shoes off before boarding a plane. The British novelist Somerset Maugham produced some of his greatest literature during this period, stories filled with exotic characters — the plantation owners and aristocrats, not to mention the secret agents and scoundrels — that he met on his numerous trips to China, India and the Middle East. Indeed, to travel at that time was to engage in an activity that was, by all indications, considerably more civilized than it is today.
A generation ago, intercontinental travel was an exotic world of steamer trunks and gangplanks, of distant ports and foreign train stations — an era when a journey could take days, even weeks until you reached your final destination. Tourists sought refuge in faraway lands, with ports of call ranging from Hong Kong and Burma to Prague and Venice, Tasmania and Odessa to the warm, sunny shores of Cannes and Capri. The Orient Express — which in its heyday ferried passengers from Paris to Istanbul — remains even today a symbol of intercontinental intrigue, with its sister ships on the legendary Cunard Line promising perhaps an equal level of luxury.
Turn-of-the-century travel benefitted, too, from the efforts of advertisers who employed a series of (mostly anonymous) artists to craft alluring pictures — of distant lands and faraway places — that most of us could only dream about. Combining superb illustration and hand-drawn typography, they produced dazzling images in rich vibrant colors rendered through the magic of stone lithography. Consider, for example, the Panama Pacific Lines, which traveled between New York and California across the Panama Canal. Back in the day, a one-way passage cost $120, while a first-class ticket would set you back $185.
The posters here come from the magnificent collection in the Boston Public Library. In these lean economic times, let us rejoice in the visual splendor of this spectacular, if vicarious world tour. Shoe removal, by the way, is entirely optional.
Eric Baker Design Associates is a Manhattan-based design firm established in 1986. Eric teaches the history of graphic design and corporate identity at the School of Visual Arts, and has twice received National Endowment for the Arts Grants for independent design history projects. He is inveterate collector of books and ephemera. Editor's Note: All images link to their original source and are copyright their original owners.