Morgan Lithograph’s poster for “The Sheik.”
Fast-cutting, hyper-kinetic trailers and TV spots today sell upcoming films to the general public. In the 1910s-1920s, however, eye-catching visual illustrations like posters and theater displays lured paying customers into movie palaces. Film studios provided lithography companies with photographs or suggested designs around which talented artists produced striking key art promoting the films. Exhibitors rented or purchased the never-ending supply of publicity materials from the studios, manufacturers and exchanges to display throughout their theater or around the town in sizes ranging from half-sheets and one-sheets, to wall-size three- and six-sheets, all the way to gigantic billboard-sized 24-sheets. The Morgan Lithograph Co. reigned as one of the top poster lithographers of this period, creating stunning images branding a company’s product and selling them on a grand scale to consumers.
According to the book, “Cleveland: the Making of a City,” Captain William J. Morgan and his younger brother, George, established the W. J. Morgan & Co. on Superior Street in 1864 to produce broadsheets and various forms of business ephemera (trade cards, pamphlets, blotters, postcards, posters) to advertise local businesses. Increasing orders from surrounding states soon forced the company to abandon using a hand press and employ a punched stamp press to churn out product. They also moved to larger headquarters.
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The company employed the stone lithographic process to create its advertising materials. Lithography had been invented in 1796, which entailed grounding stones which were polished by “stone preparers.” This involved drawing an image with oil or wax onto a smooth, flat plate, and then treating the surface with a mixture of gum arabic and acid. This process etched the parts of the stone not protected by the image. The stone plate was then moistened, with the etched portions retaining water. Ink could now be applied to the stone, which would stick only to the original drawing, repelled by the water on the other portions. The ink was then transferred onto a blank sheet of paper, which produced a colorful printed image.
W. J. Morgan and Co. hired a string of artists to design gorgeous images to entice businesses to pay the company to promote its products. Many of the artists were also traveling salesmen, moving from city to city in the states or areas they covered to visit their clients and sketch offices, buildings, and facilities to appear on the advertising materials. Most of their traveling salesmen/artists were dedicated employees, while others were described as “slick ones,” gamblers, and big mouths in local papers.
A. M. Witlard, one of Morgan’s artists, was recognized as a painter, creating “Yankee Doodle, one of the most popular images of the late 1800s, as well as “Pluck” and “Jim Bludsoe,” according to the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, March 13, 1880.
By 1887, the now Morgan Lithograph Co. was focusing almost entirely on the entertainment business, designing broadsheets, posters and other items for circuses, theaters and traveling companies, with the Ringling Brothers Circus one of its premier clients. They enticed theatrical ventures by implying their businesses could be as successful as Ringling Brothers if they only employed Morgan. From its work with Ringling, Morgan claimed it was the first to create billboard size or 24-sheet posters.
In the 1890s, Morgan Lithograph Co. won gold medals at both the Paris World’s Fair and the Chicago Exposition for its large-scale attractive posters.
Morgan also produced political posters, such as creating sheets for William McKinley’s presidential campaign in 1896. In 1907, the Tournament of Roses Assn. employed Morgan Lithograph Co. to design striking posters to display in leading East Coast railroad stations.
Advertising was huge in this period, as companies rushed to entice customers to buy new products and entertainment, which might lead to increased popularity or success these products and services might give them, thus also shaping fashion and cultural trends. Thousands of companies across America produced these striking illustrated images on posters, particularly for entertainment, creating ever more elaborate and colorful crafted designs. Many of these companies plastered the sides of fences and walls with large colorful posters advertising their new productions or traveling shows, or stuck them in front windows and displays.
Film companies quickly joined the parade of entertainment businesses employing such advertising, as they looked to hook an eager American public hungry for new types of novel and exciting entertainment. In the early 1900s, film companies produced posters advertising their films, but in 1909, the Kalem Co. was one of the first to begin producing postcards and posters listing stars’ names. Kalem also promoted its use of four-color printed posters as well.
Morgan Lithograph Co. quickly became one of the leading practitioners of poster production, thanks to its well-respected reputation and large size. In fact, its financial success allowed it to buy up smaller competitors, thereby gaining more market share and production facilities.
By 1912, leading companies such as Essanay and Universal proudly touted that the Morgan Lithograph Co. produced their arresting posters, and most of the other film producers would employ them from time to time as well. Essanay ads in leading trade papers stated that four-color lithographic posters by Morgan cost 35 cents each. In 1913, Morgan produced three and six-sheet posters as well as the standard one-sheet at 27 inches wide by 41 inches high.
“Aurora of the North,” 1914, for auction by Heritage Auctions with bids starting at $500.
Universal trumpeted the salesmanship of Morgan Lithograph’s “gorgeously beautiful” posters to sell product. It noted in 1914 Moving Picture World ads that Morgan Lithograph Co. produced multiple versions and sizes of posters and suggested theaters “plaster them over your neighborhood,” as their striking, imaginative designs captured viewers’ eyes. They stated that Morgan produced posters from scene stills provided them by Universal productions, unlike other poster manufacturers, who often created images from whole cloth.
J. W. Bryson of the Laemmle Film Service in Minneapolis gushed in a 1914 Universal ad about Morgan’s quality. “They are par excellence. In fact, we have never seen a single sheet of paper made by the Morgan people that has not been far superior to those of our nearest competitors.”
As Universal pointed out in “Exhibitor Times” 1914 advertisements, “A powerful poster in a good live spot will bring greater results than a lot of cheap heralds thrown around promiscuously by incompetent distributors.” It also noted that Morgan was now producing three-sheet colorful posters for many of its one-reel films, “a radical departure from the ordinary routine.” Ads remarked on the high quality and clean paper employed by Morgan.
Morgan Lithograph Co.’s visually stunning portraits of Universal stars also filled theaters. Universal stated that exhibitors could create gorgeous art galleries in their lobbies luring in “hero-worshippers” of such stars as Mary Fuller, Grace Cunard, Francis Ford, J. Warren Kerrigan, Mary Pickford, Ford Sterling, and others by displaying these unique images (“We advise framing by all means”), sure to “pack ‘em in.”
The company purchased facilities in Long Island to aid the manufacture and distribution of its products. Teams of employees devised the inks and designs for the posters, printed them out, and folded them for shipment to theaters. The sometimes unfortunate by-product of producing posters with paper and oil, however, was fire, which damaged and destroyed many of its buildings over the years.
By the 1920s, Morgan ads declared the company produced “snipes,” half-sheets, hanger, one-, three-, six-, and 24-sheets, eye-catching art at its best for the likes of Hal Roach, Sennett, Paramount, MGM, Universal, and the like.
In the 1930s, the industry developed offset printing processes that gradually made stone lithography obsolete. Companies now photographed the provided artwork through screens separated by color, creating sharper but less striking images. Of course, they were also cheaper. By the 1940s, stone lithography was totally replaced by color offset printing, leading Morgan Lithograph Co. to shutter production of film posters.
As of 2009, Morgan Lithograph Co. still existed in Cleveland, now called Morgan Litho, advertising that they employed letterpress, screen, and digital printing for its customers’ needs.