Scrolling through apartment listings, you may notice that some people, without fail, love to decorate their homes with fake-deep, “inspirational” wall art. I used to think this was a suburban mom thing. After working at Caretaker for a few months, I realized young people were also choosing to surround themselves with Winston Churchill quotes in cursive font. This style of decor has become the subject of thousands of memes.
If you’re not familiar with this trend (you’ve never been to Target or Pier 1?), here are some examples.
This apartment has so many signs telling you to relax that it may be hard to relax.
I don’t know why the people who live in this apartment chose to write ‘#blessed’ over the toilet, but here we are.
But where did this come from?
When did people begin plastering their walls with phrases that at first glance may seem heart-warming, but upon further inspection are trite and meaningless?
It started as office decor
Almost 100 years before inspirational wall art adorned apartments and home all across the world, a company called Parker-Holladay started producing what many believe to be the first motivational posters. The print company created a character named Bill Jones, who was used to encourage employees to be respectful, to embrace teamwork, and to avoid the impulse to procrastinate.
Parker-Holladay sold these posted to companies through a subscription. They were wildly popular until the Great Depression hit. Once one-quarter of Americans were unemployed, businesses stopped buying, and Bill Jones fell into obscurity.
It continued as political propaganda
In 1939, the Great Depression ended and World War II began. Motivational and inspiration posters became less focused on increasing productivity in the workplace, and was instead designed to inspire civilians to assist in the war effort. These posters, many of which were paid for by the U.S. Army, had several different goals.
Anti-venereal disease posters
Army records document 100,000 cases of gonorrhea amongst soldiers in the Civil War. In World War I, sexually transmitted diseases led to more than 10,000 soldiers being discharged. Those who weren’t discharged but still contracted STDs took a combined 7 million ‘sick days’ throughout the duration of the war. Penicillin wouldn’t go into wide use to treat such infections until the mid-1940s, years after World War II began. The military began encouraging troops to use condoms to make sure they were able to fight. They did this with some very weird posters designed to warn soldiers about syphilis and gonorrhea.
Motivating those at home
Labor shortages were out of control during World War II, as many man had left their jobs to enter the military. Posters were designed to encourage women to do their part at home by helping in factories, the defense industry and civilian service. On top of that, gasoline, rubber, sugar, butter, and meat were rationed during the war. The military created posters reminding people that the rations were necessary, as the troops needed these items to win the war.
Then it got corny
In the 1970s, motivational posters began to resemble the vaguely uplifting wall art we see in apartments today. The first of its kind is called the “Hang in There, Baby,” poster, based on a photograph by Victor Baldwin. Baldwin was known as a celebrity photographer, but also enjoyed to photograph animals. A photoshoot of his Siamese cat, Sissy, in which he shot Sissy in different acrobatic poses, produced the image used in “Hang in There, Baby.”
The poster sold 350,000 copies in two years. Baldwin got fan mail from all over, with people writing to tell him that the image of his cat with the simple caption had given them the strength to recover from illness, accidents, and other negative life experiences.
Motivational posters went mainstream
The 80s and 90s, two decades known for embracing the most corny and tacky trends, saw a huge rise in the popularity of motivational posters. If you entered a school or an office in those years, you probably saw (at least) one of these babies. Successories was launched in 1985 and created these iconic posters with a standard design: pretty nature photo, vague business-y buzzword, insightful phrase.
In Practical Lessons in Leadership: A Guidebook for Aspiring and Experienced Leaders, Art Petty writes, “Driving innovation requires more than a motivational poster. Innovation cannot be mandated or legislated, and it definitely is not inspired by the annual corporate motivational poster.”
While they may seem dated and trite to us now, there is actually scientific research that backs up their effectiveness. A psychologist at the University of Toronto conducted a study to see if motivational posters did anything for work performance. He chose 54 call center employees at random and asked them to raise money for a cause. The employees were separated into one of three rooms; either a room with no decoration, a room featuring a runner crossing a finish line, or a room with a poster of smiling call-center employees. The workers in the empty room raised the least money. The workers in the room with the victorious runner raised more, and the workers with a poster of their smiling peers raised the most of all.
The memes began
Largely considered to be one of the first meme formats, demotivational posters began to flood the internet in 1998. As with all early memes, looking back on them makes one grateful for how memes have evolved.
Present day memes
While meme formats have evolved, the topics are somewhat enduring. Motivational wall art is still regularly mocked in memes, but not how it was in the 90s. Instead of a meme mimicking the format of formerly well-known workplace posters, the focus has turned to mocking the banal, meant-to-be-inspirational wall art, bought at Target, and hung inside a person’s home.
What makes this so funny?
I know this is hilarious, but why is it hilarious? We spoke to Renee Worley, admin of @vaporcult, a meme page that regularly caricatures ‘Karen,’ an imaginary stereotype of a woman who loves to ask to speak to the manager and lives in a home filled with posters that say ‘Home is Where the Wine is’ and ‘Live, Laugh, Love.’
Renee says, “Inspirational wall art is so hilarious because it has the opposite effect of what’s intended. Like we put art on our walls to express individuality but most shitty inspirational wall art is painfully predictable and cliché.”
She also explained the difference between normal text-based wall art and hilariously bad wall art. “Typography. Certain fonts are just so overdone that they can make anything funny, it could be a beautiful piece of art but if it’s says “Gather” in Bradley Hand ITC it’s aesthetic value will immediately plummet.”
If you could choose any words to display in your home and inspire you, what would they say? We thought this monologue from the classic film Casino would be great on a bedroom wall.
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