Decorate With These (Non-Racist) Posters From 19th Century Theatre

Decorate With These (Non-Racist) Posters From 19th Century Theatre
Image: Public Domain, Fair Use

One of the skills I envy most in others is the ability to decorate a room with artwork. We’ve lived in our current apartment for going on three years and most of our walls are still vast expanses of blank whiteness. It’s not that I don’t like looking at things on the wall. I do. But like cultivating a playlist of new music, finding the good stuff takes time and research, especially if you have eclectic tastes. You can spend hours poring over Instagram and AllPosters hoping to find something interesting. Or you can just decorate every bare surface in your home with vintage 19th century theatre posters.

This suggestion comes to us from one Dr. Bob Nicholson (who bills himself as a “Historian of Victorian Pop Culture”). He started a massive Twitter thread highlighting some of the very excellent vintage theatre posters assembled by Picryl, an online resource for materials in the public domain.

According to Dr. Nicholson, most of these posters, which date back as far as the 1870s, are being pulled from the collections of the Library of Congress. It’s a slightly surreal glimpse into the pop culture of the time, and a stark lesson in the ephemeral nature of … pretty much all of human endeavour. Chances are excellent you have heard of none of these plays, nor any of the actors featured in them, but at one point, they were what passed for the height of entertainment. Or maybe they weren’t — maybe they were the 1890s equivalent of Lifetime Original Movies. At this much of a remove, it really doesn’t matter, and that’s kind of wonderful.

Without context, the posters offer nothing more or less than slices of slightly surreal Victoriana, many of which would look great if printed, framed and hung in your bathroom.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Are some of these posters racist? Oh, you’d better believe some of these posters are racist. A lot of them, actually. But there are thousands in the Picryl gallery to choose from — any of which can be ordered in a variety of print sizes and finishing options — so it shouldn’t take too much work to find one that you can hang up without being a legitimately bad person.

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