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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Think "I" And You Work Alone: Mather Constructive Character Posters and the Advertising of Self-Mastery


During the widespread economic prosperity of the 1920s in the United States, employers faced a serious problem retaining workers. Labor had been weakened after losing massive strikes in 1919, but the memory of that turbulent period haunted employers. Immigration restrictions enacted in the middle of the decade curtailed employers’ ability to fire and replace workers as they saw fit, and an expanding economy put workers in demand. Employers needed a uniform message to sell their workers on company loyalty. It was in this context that Mather and Company produced hundreds of motivational workplace posters, selling them to companies across the country. These posters appear at first glance to be little more than a cacophony of banal exhortations to good work habits. Yet among the jumble of images and messages, a powerful, coherent ideology urged workers to have loyalty not merely to employers, but to each other. This paper argues that these posters and related materials fostered communalism through four distinct themes: warning against moving from job to job, condemning a reliance on luck, asserting strict guidelines for workplace speech, and exhorting workers to control their emotions, all underpinned with a powerful celebration of masculinity. This project is based on an analysis of nearly three hundred posters produced by Mather and Company, as well as related materials. This project complicates and deepens our current understanding of workplace dynamics during the 1920s, and offers new insight into the sophisticated workplace propaganda of the period.

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