Once upon a time, there was a little kitten who was hanging in there and gracing office walls everywhere. Long before he got his claws into that rope to motivate employees to make it to Friday, though, companies used a different kind of poster to get workers working — and they learned the technique from the government.
“After World War I, companies realized that the posters that were used during [the war] to motivate people had been very effective,” says Cathy Keen, archivist at the National Museum of American History. So private companies took a poster-size page from the government’s playbook and brought in motivational signs. “Let’s Get It Right: Work Incentive Posters of the 1920s,” a new exhibit at the museum assembled by Keen and associate curator Craig Orr, collects examples of these posters — some originals, some scanned and displayed on video screens — that borrow the style and verbiage of the ones used during wartime to get citizens to eat less meat or to join the fight.
“These types of things are designed to motivate people in the work environment, as opposed to buying more bonds,” Orr says. The posters were hung in factories and in offices throughout the country in the 1920s, and they were all about one thing: getting employees on board the company ship to ensure smooth sailing for everyone.
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; through Jan. 6, free.
All or nothing
This poster sent the message to employees that if they did their jobs right, it would help the company. Helping the company would eventually help the employees, so it was in their best interest to work as hard as possible. “It’s not an overt message, but it’s a subtle message in some of these posters,” Keen says. “They imply that if you communicate with your company, you act properly, you follow the rules, you’ll be treated fairly.” In this case, doing your job with no mistakes meant you valued the company’s time and resources; in turn, the company would value you.
“These posters are designed to be easily understood,” Orr says. “They have an image, text, then a closing line.” Still, as immigration began to soar and the American workforce grew more diverse, companies had to find a way to communicate to employees who didn’t speak English. On this poster, the word “mistake” appears in five other languages, including Spanish and German. Even if employees couldn’t understand the entire poster, they got the idea: No matter what hat you’re wearing, don’t screw up.
Go hard or go home
The motivational posters weren’t just about reaching factory workers; they applied to the guys on the top floors, too. This poster, from Chicago-based Mather & Co., a major producer of posters at the time, targets white-collar workers who might be doing whatever the 1920s version of screwing around on Reddit was. “It’s really on you to do your job right,” Orr says; not only that, it’s really on you to take on more than what your job requires. A real worker was one who burdened himself for the betterment of the company not because he was asked to, but because he wanted to.
Bill knows best
Pay no attention to the man looming above the crowd; he doesn’t exist. One of the major work-incentive poster producers of the era, the Parker-Holladay Co. in England, created the fatherly character of Bill Jones, who was introduced with this poster and went on to star in dozens more. “He presents himself as, ‘I thought I’d share these things I learned along the way,’ ” Orr says. Jones’ folksy (and fake) voice tapped into the patriotic spirit many workers remembered from the war; failure to heed his advice was practically un-American. Orr sums it up: The Bill Jones posters are “all about apple pie and the American way.”
With employers of the 1920s fearing labor unrest, there was an effort to communicate that everyone in a company was working together against the forces of unprofitability. Here, employees and management are all in the same army fighting the business-world version of the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Being a member of a team suggested that “if you do your job right, you’ll find it easy,” Orr says. “You’ll get along and everything will be hunky-dory.” Doing anything that interfered with the company’s ability to make money — striking for better conditions, or unionizing — was betraying your fellow soldiers.