By Judith Enright
More than 800 posters and poster designs were produced by the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in the early part of the 20th century. Library and Archives Canada is custodian to 379 of these posters which represent a unique sampling from this bold and beautiful British marketing campaign.
Started in 1926 by Secretary of State for the Colonies Leopold Amery, the Board’s mandate was straightforward—to encourage and promote trade without tariffs between Great Britain and her colonies, and to lead the British population away from the purchase of foreign goods and support buying and consuming all things British.
Through newspaper advertising campaigns, pamphlets, hand bills, films, radio programs, and poster displays, the EMB set out to achieve its goal of “Bringing the Empire Alive” to Britain and its colonies. For its poster displays, the EMB commissioned some of the most reputable and notable artists and designers of the time, including Manitoba-born poster artist Austin Cooper.
Using bold lettering and vibrant colours, the EMB posters were meant to be dynamic and eye-catching. Some of the posters were also gender-specific, depicting men as “Empire builders” and women as consumers. In Britain, the posters were placed on specially designed billboards and in shop windows in over 450 towns and cities. In the colonies, where the advertising campaign was less aggressive, posters could be found on the walls of many high-traffic areas such as stores and factories. Although some posters were meant to be seen as a single image, other posters were designed to tell their story through a sequence of three to five images, an approach often compared to reading a comic strip.
The posters held by Library and Archives Canada were received between 1926 and 1933 and form a sub-series of the Canadian Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce fonds. The majority of these posters are dedicated to Canadian themes and goods, however products from other colonies are represented as well.
In 1932, Ottawa hosted the British Empire Economic Conference held to discuss the economic repercussions of the Great Depression. It was here that the practice of “Imperial Preference” was inaugurated, resulting in restricted tariffs within the British Empire and raised tariffs for countries outside the Empire. As a consequence, the Board was no longer necessary and was dissolved in 1933.
Judith Enright is an archival assistant in the Aboriginal and Social Affairs Section of the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.