Before the television PSA and the internet ad campaign, public officials had to rely on low-tech methods to spread the word about safety. Their solution: eye-catching posters that could be hung in schools, workplaces, public transit stations, and other public locations to remind citizens to stay safe. While these posters often resembled wartime propaganda images in design, the messages were all about the home front; the goal of these public safety campaigns wasn’t to support soldiers overseas, but to keep a citizenry with increasing access to powerful and dangerous technology safe in their day-to-day lives.
These posters were designed with bright colors and memorable slogans that would make them eye-catching and easy to remember. Some of them are such interesting works of art that they’re still prized by collectors to this day.
(Warning: Some of the posters from the early 20th century may be graphic.)
No one did traffic safety campaigns quite like the Soviet Union. This poster is one of many showing the grim dangers of negligence on the road–in this case, the viewer is reminded of the fatal consequences of forgetting to pay attention near the wheels of a tram. Image source: CRE Stock
This grim poster was designed and distributed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that was created to employ American citizens during the Great Depression. Hundreds of designers working for the agency created some of the most memorable government-sponsored art in American history. Campaigns against drunk driving are often more graphic than other public safety initiatives, with a focus on the dire consequences of driving under the influence. Image source: The Library of Congress
This German poster from the 1930s makes the consequences of careless driving clear to viewers. The text implores, “Motorist! Be Careful!” over a gristly scene of an accident that appears to have involved an automobile and an unfortunate cyclist. Image source: Collectors Weekly
Beginning in the 1950s, Soviet officials attempted to cut down on drunk driving accidents with an aggressively brutal public safety campaign and strict restrictions on where and when alcohol could be sold and consumed. Both efforts were a failure; the public safety campaign had no apparent effect, and the strict limitations caused a massive sugar shortage as home distillers made up for the booze deficit. Image source: Lifesaver
In later decades, the gruesome reminders of injuries and deaths were replaced with gentler images in most Western countries. This poster, designed by Roland Davis in the 1950s, is typical of the British approach to design. Bright colors predominate, and although a disastrous scene is in progress, there’s no blood or memento mori to be seem. Image source: The Import
This eye-catching poster from the National Safety Council appears to have been printed some time around the 1960s. While the National Safety Council is not a government organization, this nonprofit is responsible for many of the most memorable American safety posters. Image source: Staffing Talk
This brightly colored British poster from the 1970s reminds motorists to slow down and watch out when children may be playing nearby. Within only two decades, poster design has changed radically; while bright colors are still in vogue, the realistically drawn street scenes of previous decades are being edged out by more abstract designs. Image source: The Import
While public safety posters have largely been superseded be television, radio and internet campaigns, artists still turn to classic designs when they want to leave an impression. This poster from a 1990s British railway safety initiative calls back to 1960s pop art. Image source: The National Railway Museum