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Vintage ski posters are perhaps our sport’s most treasured memorabilia. With bright colors and stylized illustrations, they capture the romance and spirit of skiing—and also illustrate what was going on in the world outside the sport at the time, too.
According to E. John B. Allen, professor emeritus of history at Plymouth State University and author of multiple books about the history of skiing, the first ski posters came out in the late 1860s and were announcements of ski races—cross-country in California through the Alturas Snowshoe Club and jumping in the Midwest. “Alturas used the word ‘snowshoe’ because they didn’t have a word for ‘ski’ at that time,” he said.
The European posters from the turn of the century to the 1920s depicted the adventure side of the sport, with lone men looking out to the mountains beyond. “It was a Scandinavian thing,” Allen said. “Right around the turn of the century, with increasing industrialization coming on, getting into God’s natural world had a healthy morality to it. It would benefit the soul, body, and mind, and you’d become a good person. It had a kind of Christian muscularity to it.”
Then, as downhill skiing gained in popularity in the U.S. in the 1930s, there was new economic incentive to spread the word. Posters became vehicles for advertising, and many of them were commissioned by tourism boards. In the case of state-run ski areas like Canon Mountain in New Hampshire, “it was all very much an effort to boost the state economy,” Allen said.
There were also posters commissioned by these new areas themselves to try to increase revenue to offset the significant costs of building. “Most of the people who started the rope tows weren’t out to make a lot of money, but once they got going with T-bars and chairlifts, then it became really a financial matter. It costs a lot of money to put up a chairlift, and then you need infrastructure to make it go.”
The American posters of this era—done by the artists such as Dwight Shepler and Sascha Maurer—were extremely romantic, with men and women recreating together and having more fun than perhaps the equipment of the day would allow. (Try spending a mid-January day in New Hampshire wearing wool pants and leather boots and see how often you smile.)
“When the alpine craze hit, it was all about having a good time,” Allen said. “You’ll find most of the American ski posters are social in nature, because one of the real attractions of early skiing was the social aspect. Early T-bars were called ‘he sticks’ and ‘she sticks,’ because the social network was already built into it.”
There were also many posters from the East Coast that portrayed train travel, featuring ski trains from Boston and New York City. “Again, train travel was incredibly social. Get on board, have fun, drink something and have a wonderful time,” Allen said.
The 1930s was also a great era for illustration in general, with weekly illustrated magazines such as Boys’ Life. “All of them had painted pictures on the cover, and they would often feature paintings of skiers,” Allen said.
Ski posters also served as a symbol of national pride. A Norwegian ski poster painted after Norway became an independent nation in 1905 represented freedom, Allen said. “The woman is in a red dress on white snow—Norway’s colors—and it seems to me to represent Norway in action.” Also, the color palette of American posters during World War II tend to be red, white, and blue to represent patriotic pride.
As for Allen’s personal favorite? “I live in New Hampshire, so I’m partial to a poster by Dwight Shepler that says something about the glorious winters here.”
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.