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History of Movie Posters

History of Vintage Movie Posters

Original vintage movie posters and movie memorabilia have become increasingly desirable by collectors,  movie buffs and aficionados of movie poster art over at least the past 50 years. Most people don't realize vintage movie posters are available to the general public . They were only to be loaned to theater owners and then returned thereafter thereby never produced for the collector market. Vintage movie posters even have a studio notation on the bottom stating “Property of National Screen Service Licensed for Display Purposed Only, Must Be Returned”. Before the monopolization of the movie theatre industry, movie posters were also used throughout the community to promote upcoming films. The barber shop, drug store and local hardware store displayed movie poster “inserts” and “window cards”. Today, only the “one sheet” movie poster is produced and displayed in the theatre lobbies.

In 1933, one of the darkest years of the Great Depression, a theater owner might receive a 15-cent credit for returning a movie poster to his regional exchange. Compare this figure with the cost of a gallon of gas (18 cents) or a loaf of bread (12 cents) and it’s easy to understand why very few movie posters survived from this period. If the austerity of the times and the frugality of theater owners was not enough to keep movie posters out of the hands of the general public, the sweeping paper drives of the war years also did their part to help keep movie memorabilia out of general circulation. So it’s no surprise that movie posters from the years of 1930 through 1945 are quite scarce.

In fact, it is estimated that fewer than 20 copies of movie posters exist from most films made during the period of 1930 through 1945. For many landmark films of the era (e.g., "Frankenstein", "Dracula",“The Grapes of Wrath”, “Casablanca", “The Wizard of Oz”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”,  “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “Flash Gordon”) it is believed that less than a dozen examples have survived of any particular poster.  For example, only one (least desirable) version of the "Wizard of OZ" one sheet has ever surfaced on the market, whereas the other versions (of superior artwork and design) have never been offered for sale. 

Over the years original vintage movie posters have been produced in various shapes and sizes. Before the 1980’s and the demise of the small town movie theaters (as a result of the monopolization of the industry by companies like Showcase cinemas) also meant the extinction of all the breath-taking movie posters such as the lobby cards, window cards, insert, half sheets and the traffic-stopping 3, 6 and 24 sheets. The primary movie poster that survives today is the standard one sheet. Below is a glossary of the most popular vintage movie posters that once played a major role in the promotion and exhilarating anticipation of upcoming movie events.

NSS Designation on Vintage Movie Posters:
Most movie posters prior to 1978 had a number designation in the lower right corner assigned by the National Screen Service (NSS):  

In an effort to control the number of materials going through it, the NSS instituted a date and coding system. The NSS had regional offices set up throughout the country. All movie materials distributed through the National Screen Service normally carried the NSS number.

Until mid-1977, the NSS number consisted of two digits, then a slash (/), and one to four numbers. The first two numbers indicated the year of the release, the slash was a divider, and the last four digits represented the sequential order of the movie for that year. For example, an NSS number of 65/100 indicated that the movie was released in 1965, and was the 100th movie title coded by NSS for the year 1965.

One Sheets & Half Sheet Movie Posters:

These have always been the primary advertising posters used by theaters since the early 1900’s. The one sheet (27x41”) is still used today in the lobbies of the major movie theaters. However, the half sheets (22x28”) became extinct around 1980. Vintage one sheets of major classics from pre 1960 are highly sought after by collectors sometimes paying over $1,000,000 for such gems as Frankenstein or Metropolis.

Three and Six Sheet Movie Posters:

The Three and Six Sheet movie posters were the “traffic stopping” posters that often were displayed in major venues like Time Square or Los Angeles.  The 3 sheet size is 41x81” and the 6 sheet is 81x81” making them larger than life size.  In my area I notice that even some showcase cinemas have vintage six sheets displayed in their lobby.    These larger than life posters are highly desirable in particular for the superior artwork of certain posters.   They are also much rarer than the standard one sheet because very few were made.   And, because of their large size, survival from handling damage is rare.    To see examples of these spectacular poster see our Larger Than Life 3 and 6 Sheet Collection Page

Lobby Card Movie Posters:

Original vintage movie poster lobby cardsLobby cards were used in U.S. theaters up until the late 1970’s. They are rarely produced for today’s films. These small movie posters (11”x14”) printed on card stock were generally produced in sets of eight. These mini movie posters were designed for display in a theater’s lobby for the purpose of luring movie goers into the theater by showing highlights from the movie. A lobby card typically set entailed one Title Card (TC), a lobby card of similar designed to the one sheet with credits and feature/close-up artwork of the major stars, and seven Scene Cards (SC), each depicting a different scene from the movie.
Vintage original movie posters for sale
Original vintage lobby cards are highly collectible today because they often depict the most memorable scenes in the movie which were not captured on the other style posters. In addition, lobby cards are the perfect size for framing and display.

Window Card and Insert Movie Posters:

Highly collectible vintage movie posters today also include Window Cards (14x22”) and Inserts (14x36”). These movie poster styles were primarily used to promote the movie in local businesses, such as the drug store and local barber shop. As with lobby cards these movie posters are very desirable due to their superior vintage graphics and artwork. Like the lobby card and half sheet, these are made of a thicker paper then the one sheet. Modern day posters generated by computer have lost their artistic value as compared to the vintage movie posters created by highly skilled artists.

Linen Backing your Vintage Movie Posters:

Linen backing is a process of restoring and/or maintaining a vintage movie poster’s life. The movie poster is laid onto a cloth like acid-free material that actually helps preserve the older NON Acid free movie poster paper that would otherwise become very brittle and eventually deteriorate (prior to the 1970s  movie poster paper was NOT acid free). . Also, by laying movie posters onto acid free linen it removes the flaws including the fold lines which all vintage movie posters have. It also allows for restoration of any holes, tears or small missing pieces. In addition, unlike hard mounted posters, linen backed posters can be rolled and easily stored. It is one of the few collectible restoration processes that actually adds value to the poster. All of the most expensive posters, such as the million dollar “Mummy” have been professionally linen backed. If you have ever seen the difference between an un-linen backed and a linen backed poster, there is no comparison. Linen backed posters are simply beautiful.


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