Empire Marketing Board

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.

A colour print showing two men sawing a tree trunk on the left and three men planting trees on the right, with the caption, “Timber in Canada.”

Timber in Canada (MIKAN 2845125)

Colour print of a metal crane and two men loading a trailer, with the caption “Our Steel for Australia”

Our Steel for Australia (MIKAN 2845006)

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.

A black-and-white photo of a man in an evening suit standing beside a poster on the wall.

Photo of Austin Cooper by Sydney Carter (MIKAN 3245241)

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.

A colour print of a grocery store with signs advertising that many of the products are Canadian. In the front of the store, a woman is having a discussion with the grocer. The poster has the caption, “The Wise Shopkeeper and the Good Housewife.”

The Wise Shopkeeper and the Good Housewife (MIKAN 2844979)

A colour print of a woman wearing a long dress and holding a cup of tea, standing beside a side table with a tea tray, with the caption, “Drinking Empire-Grown Tea.”

Drinking Empire-Grown Tea (MIKAN 2844932)

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.

A colour print of a man walking in front of a well-lit grocery store with advertisements for Empire products. Men and women are going in and out the shop.

Far-left panel of the advertisement, “John Bull, Sons and Daughters” (MIKAN 2845188)

A colour print of men loading wooden barrels on a boat, with the caption, “Canadian Apples for the United Kingdom.”

Canadian Apples for the United Kingdom (MIKAN 2844965)

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.

A colour print of a tiger and underneath is the caption, “Buy Singapore Pineapples in Tins.”

Buy Singapore Pineapples in Tins (MIKAN 2845035)

A colour print showing the crests of India, South Africa and Canada, with the caption, “Smoke Empire Tobacco.”

Smoke Empire Tobacco (MIKAN 2844917)

To view these posters, visit the Flickr set or explore the Empire Marketing Board by looking through the lower-level descriptions.


Judith Enright is an archival assistant in the Aboriginal and Social Affairs Section of the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Propaganda: Second World War Approach

Wartime propaganda was not a 20th century invention. It has been around for many centuries in different formats. It was the advent of cheaper and quicker printing methods that made it possible to mass produce posters at the time of the Second World War. From recruitment, security and secrecy to patriotism, frugality and investments, there were posters created for every subject.

Recruitment posters, which until this point had been aimed solely at men, started to show signs of change as the war progressed. Although still often portrayed as fragile, women were becoming more and more important to the war effort. The pressure was on to enlist more men and women and the posters made it clear there was no excuse not to join.

A colour poster showing a lion and beaver wielding swords and advancing menacingly.

War propaganda campaign: the beaver and the lion united against the enemy (MIKAN 2834354)

Another new element to propaganda during the Second World War was the concern about security and secrecy. There were growing fears that spies were always listening to conversations and that a small detail could lead to a big disaster for the troops. The posters started off fairly simple but as time progressed, they became more dramatic, often portraying a sinister-looking man in the background with large ears and a group of civilians or army men in the forefront having what seems like an innocuous conversation. The colours and graphics for these particular posters were often quite bold.

A colour poster showing two photographs overlaid with text. The top photo shows a café with people talking and a bystander listening to their conversation. The photo below shows a boat sinking.

“She Sails at Midnight…” Careless talk costs lives: propaganda for the security of Canada’s army (MIKAN 2834362)

The next phase was to target the men and women who were not able to enlist, to have them play a part in the war in a different way. They were called upon to work harder and produce more for the war effort. And when that was no longer enough, they were strongly encouraged to buy Victory Bonds to help fund the war. The tone of these posters evolved from the earlier tone of fear to something more hopeful—that by purchasing Victory Bonds, Canadians were ensuring a safe and happy future for their country.

A colour poster with a black-and-white photograph of a woman holding a bomb in her hands with the caption: “I’m making bombs and buying bonds!” Underneath the photograph in white letters on a red banner: “Buy Victory Bonds.”

Victory loan drive: “I’m Making Bombs and Buying Bonds!” (MIKAN 2846935)

Although there is no sure way of gauging the effectiveness of any of these campaigns, they remain an important piece of our history and a socio-economic, political look into the past.

Related links:

1915: Would you follow this example?

The recruiting posters below are part of a remarkable collection of more than 4,000 posters from many combatant nations, acquired under the guidance of Dominion Archivist Dr. Arthur Doughty as part of a larger effort to document the First World War.

Image of two posters side by side, one in English and one in French. The imagery shows a soldier standing sideways, in front of the Union Jack, with a rifle balanced on his shoulder. He is wearing the uniform and equipment of the 1915 Canadian soldier: Ross rifle, pack, cap, puttees, and MacAdam shield-shovel (also known as the Hughes shovel).

An English and French version of a poster using the same imagery, but with text conveying very different motivations. (MIKAN 3667198 and MIKAN 3635530)

As the deadly stalemate on the Western Front continued through 1915, warring nations were forced to organize recruitment drives to raise new divisions of men for the fighting. The two battles referenced in the poster were certainly not great victories for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which had only recently commenced military operations. The desperate defence at St. Julien, an action during the Second Battle of Ypres, along with the inconclusive May 1915 Battle of Festubert, were all that authorities had to draw upon to raise fresh troops for service overseas.

The sentimental verse and patriotic imagery was conventional for this type of poster. It would appeal to Canadians with strong ties to Britain, but would offer little encouragement to French Canadians, First Nations’ communities, or to other groups to sign up. One interesting element is that the text is not a simple translation: in English the theme is heroic sacrifice, whereas in French it is about ending the carnage and restoring “progress.”

These posters offer a realistic depiction of a soldier early on in the war. This lance-corporal is armed with the Ross rifle, whose serious defects have featured in Canadian histories of the First World War. He is wearing short ankle boots and puttees (long lengths of cloth wrapped around his calves), which were cheaper to manufacture than knee-length boots but offered less protection from cold or wet. Steel helmets had not yet been developed, leaving his head and upper body vulnerable to any flying debris or shrapnel.

He is also burdened by the MacAdam shield-shovel (hanging at his hip). This invention was the result of a collaboration between Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes, and his secretary, Ena MacAdam. It attempted to combine a personal shield with a shovel. The shovel blade had a sight hole in it that was supposed to allow a soldier lying on the ground to aim and fire his rifle through the hole while shielded behind its protection. However, the shovel was too heavy and dirt would pour through the hole. Also, the shield was too thin to stop German bullets! Thankfully, this failed multi-tool quietly disappeared from the standard equipment issued before the First Division crossed from England to France. This poster is an important artifact of its time. It shows that in 1915, Canadians soldiers fighting overseas still had a very long road ahead of them.

Black-and-white photograph showing three men, two are clearly in uniform. One officer (Minister of Militia Sam Hughes) is holding the MacAdam shield-shovel which is a spade-shaped piece of metal with a hole on one side, while the other officer is kneeling on the ground doing something indiscernible. The third is looking at the spade.

Sam Hughes holding the McAdam shield-shovel (MIKAN 3195178)

Related resources

Spotlight on theatre posters

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extraordinary collection of posters promoting theatre in Canada from the 19th century to the present day. These posters are found in a wide variety of private and public archives and collections, including those of Vittorio, Theo Dimson, Guy Lalumière et Associés Inc., Normand Hudon and Robert Stacey.

Theatre posters also feature in the archives of such Canadian personalities as Marshall MacLuhan and Sydney Newman, and even in collections of old documents—for example, the theatre playbills printed on board the ships in the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin (around 1850-1853).

In addition, we must mention the archives of various theatre and stage artists and professionals (Gratien Gélinas, Jean Roberts and Marigold Charlesworth, John Hirsch and others), and of artistic and cultural institutions such as the National Arts Centre, Theatre Canada, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, the Globe Theatre and the Stratford Festival.

But the real treasure trove of theatre posters can be found in the “Posters” series of the performing arts collection, which comprises about 750 posters and programs, and in the miscellaneous poster collection, which includes about 3,170 posters.

You might say that theatre posters play a starring role at LAC!

For sample posters, please see our Flickr album.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!