Ethel Reed and the poster craze

By Helena E. Wright
Watercolor image of woman with red flowers

During the 1890s, just about any flat surface in the public eye might be covered with simple, bold, and colorful posters. They advertised everything from books to bicycles, as well as railroads, magazines, and newspapers. Engaging designs attracted attention to the goods on offer and to the poster itself, soon enthusiastically sought by collectors. Publishers and manufacturers held design competitions and posters became extraordinarily popular. Recognition of the poster as an art form developed in France in the 1880s and, while not a new format, the American art poster of the 1890s achieved a level of significance that influenced the growth of modern advertising in the 20th century. Ethel Reed's lively images contributed to this success. For Women's History Month, here's a brief look at Reed's life and work.

Woman with black hair surrounded by billows of red and blue

Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1874, Reed briefly attended art school in Boston but was largely self-trained. Her circle included artists and writers in both Boston and London. She posed for photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston and F. Holland Day, and she provided illustrations forThe Yellow Book, an avant-garde British periodical. One of the most talented and prolific artists of the 1890s, she made her name during the poster craze of the period. She produced book illustrations, cover designs, and more than 25 posters, mostly in just two years, 1895 and 1896. Her creative burst earned her international recognition and she traveled to Europe and completed a few commissions for British publications through about 1898. Then she disappeared from the historical record.

Woman in fur coat and plumed hat looks into the camera in a model pose

After such a meteoric rise and mysterious disappearance, she was lost and nearly forgotten. For decades, curators and collectors searched for clues about what happened to her. Now it seems that her problematic private life overwhelmed her artistic potential.

Blonde girl with black off the shoulder dress and black bow

A 2013 biography by William Peterson finally explained the sad end for this creative spirit, a woman whose life was destroyed by troubled relationships, drugs, and alcohol. She died in London in 1912.

Two blonde girls dressed in black holding, and surrounded by red flowers

The museum is fortunate to have a significant collection of Reed's work, including some of her earliest posters and a few unpublished designs. They were donated by Commander Charlotte Hume, U.S. Navy. The collection descended through Hume's great-aunts, the Smith sisters of Newburyport, who knew Reed in the 1890s, but they lost touch when she moved to London. Reed presented the Smiths with her first posters soon after they were issued. Many are signed and dated in Reed's distinctive, bold hand, "Compliments of Ethel Reed."

Woman in tight-fitting black cap reads a paper in front of a background of flowers

Helena E. Wright is the Curator of Graphic Arts in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She has also blogged about some portrait images of Dr. George Washington Carver.