These Vintage Travel Ads Are a Blast From the Past
Nothing can capture the imagination like travel ads. Since the dawn of the modern tourism industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tourism bureaus, ad men and airlines have sought to make far-away places feel like places people absolutely need to see before they die.
Other businesses, like hotels and railways, had to make themselves more appealing than the competition and fought for those travel dollars through ads. Sometimes those ads were incredible works of art that did everything they set out to do. Other times, not so much.
These vintage travel ads will take you back in time. Whether you want to be there is another question entirely.
Mexican Tourism Department, 1945
This might look like a somewhat racist way that white people from the 1940s viewed Mexico, and maybe it is.
But it was also how Mexicans thought white people viewed Mexico, so it was the country's tourism department that drew up this picture of a cactus wearing a sombrero and holding a guitar.
United wanted everyone to know it took the quality of its cuisine seriously, paying "top prices for steak" and employing "European-trained chefs."
Today, United's meals typically consist of a cold-cut sandwich and candy, for an additional fee.
Where'd that "extra care" go?
Days Inn, 1984
Imagine going into a motel and seeing those hideous bedsheets and a dented Cabbage Patch doll that is giving you WTF hands for interrupting its coloring book session.
That's what it was like to stay at a Days Inn in the 1980s, apparently.
And this was a selling point!
White Star Line, 1912
This famous ad is for the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. We all know how that one ends.
White Star Line was a British shipping and transportation company that was still in operation for 22 years after the Titanic disaster of 1912.
It finally went defunct in 1934 after being merged with Cunard Line, which is now part of Carnival Corporation.
London Underground, 1924
Want to go somewhere in London, England, "where it is warm and bright"? Then you'll have to scurry like rats from the misty, foggy streets of the city to the London Underground subways, which has stuff like light and heat.
It's an odd kind of travel ad, but at least visitors to London in 1924 will have known to look out for glowing Underground signs if they started to freeze to death.
Econo Lodge, 1978
Indeed, it doesn't compute that you could get a hotel with a double bed, TV and AC for less than 13 bucks a night.
Today, the best deal you can get at an Econo Lodge is in the $100 range.
Continental Airlines, 1967
"The pride our people have in their airline is almost patriotic!" Continental Airlines crowed in this ad. And for many years, this pride made Continental a major player in the airline biz.
But in 2012, it went the way of so many airlines when it was snapped up by another company, United, in a $3 billion deal.
Today, the four biggest airlines — American, Delta, United, and Southwest — control about 80 percent of total domestic passenger traffic, a monopolization that many have blamed for declining customer satisfaction. Only health-insurance companies and internet service providers are less popular than airlines. Yikes.
National Airlines, 1971
Like Continental, National Airlines once reigned supreme in the skies. In the 1970s, it was one of only three airlines (along with TWA and Pan Am) to fly from the U.S. to Europe. It was acquired in 1980 by Pan Am, which itself went belly up in 1991.
Like many airlines back in the day, National was the site of frequent attempted hijackings: a total of 22 between 1961 and 1980.
This ad, funnily enough, does not mention this fact.
U.S. Travel Bureau
Between 1937 and 1943, the U.S. Travel Bureau promoted tourism to the U.S. via film, print, radio advertising and exhibits at places like the New York World's Fair. It was signed into legislation to give it statutory footing in 1940.
Interestingly, the bureau participated in the production of "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a travel guide that listed places in the South friendly to Black travelers — as featured in the Academy Award-winning film "The Green Book."
World War II was the bureau's downfall, and the U.S. lacked anything like it until 2009, when new legislation created the Corporation for Travel Promotion into law.
Works Progress Administration, 1940
The New Deal's Works Progress Administration employed millions of people and helped revitalize a post-Great Recession economy.
Part of the WPA was its Federal Art Project, which employed thousands of artists, employing them to create various pieces of art, music, theater and various Americana.
One of those artists was Katherine Milhous, who created posters like this one to promote Pennsylvania. This one is pretty quaint and to the point: There are Quakers in Pennsylvania. Come visit?
Works Progress Administration. 1936-1940
This one, however, is a bit of a hard sell.
Want to come to rural Pennsylvania? There's stuff like ... costumes! Fish! Plows! Ceramics!
And don't forget the towns! What kind of towns? Just towns.
Come see the towns.
New York World's Fair, 1964
Financially speaking, the 1964-65 World's Fair in Queens was a disaster. The city lost million of dollars on the event.
But looking back, it still sounds pretty impressive. About 51 million people showed up to explore a NASA-sponsored Space Park and quirky state exhibits (Florida brought a dolphin show).
This fair is also where a little ride known as "It's a Small World" made its debut before moving to Disneyland.
TWA had some really great advertisements back in the day.
This one is straight to the point with why you should visit Egypt.
It has pyramids, the Sphinx, and camels with a damn fine fashion sense.
Braniff International Airways, 1960s
There's something simple, cool and effective about this poster from Braniff International Airways that advertises a trip to Miami.
We don't know who made this piece, only that it was created in the 1960s.
Braniff went under in 1982 due to high gas prices and more competition brought on by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, having accumulated a net loss of $377 millions between 1979 and 1982. Some 8,500 employees were laid off.
Havana Lithographing Company, 1938
Prior to 1691, Cuba was a major tourist destination for Americans. Posters like this can tell us why — the place looked really cool with daily horse racing, dancing and dining at grand casinos. And of course there's a Cuban woman front and center.
Trans World Airlines, 1953
This ad from 1953 is refreshingly nonsexist, and for good reason. Airlines like Trans World Airlines would be stupid not to try and attract female customers (Black customers? Not so much).
This ad promotes that a woman well-travelled (via airplane) is more worldly and with "broader horizons." The ad cleverly mentions that in the air, she will enjoy "service that befits a queen" and people will wait on her.
Not long after World War II ended, Winston Churchill left Britain for a vacation in Miami.
This ad from Virgin Airlines insinuates that had Virgin been around in the 1940s, he would have chosen them to take his post-WWII victory vacation.
Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board, 1963
This Trinidad and Tobago vacation ad paints two pictures: one of exotic, fire-dodging limbo dancers and another of a white couple casually relaxing on the beach (with the disgusting decision to wear knee-high socks and sandals, no less).
It's basically saying, come look at the locals in Trinidad with their "creative urge and throbbing vitality" (what?) and then go do white people stuff like golfing and sailing at Tobago.
New York Central System, 1939
This advertisement for the 20th Century Limited is one of the greatest art deco posters ever made.
In the summer of 1938, the New York Central Railroad unveiled the 20th Century Limited, an express streamliner passenger train.
The machine cost $6,162,000 to make — about $114 million today — and could travel from New York City to Chicago in 16 hours, 30 minutes faster than the older 20th Century Limited trains.
Western Airlines, 1970s
This poster is a very cool ad for Hawaii from Western Airlines. The artists are unknown, and it's believed to have been created in the 1970s.
Western Airlines was founded in 1925 and ceased its operations in 1987 after it merged with Delta.
Northern Pacific Railway, 1920s
The invention of the railroad brought a sense of adventure to the country, which was becoming more interconnected and traversable than ever before.
The railroad was vital to the development of the Pacific Northwest, and the Northern Pacific Railway advertised the region by linking it back to Lewis and Clark for that explorer feel.
U.S. Department of the Interior, 1938
The National Park Service was created in 1916, and the Grand Canyon was made into a national park in 1919.
Of course, the government wanted to show its people what Manifest Destiny had wrought them, so they made posters like these.
Unfortunately, not everyone likes national parks.
Japan Tourist Bureau, 1930s
The Japan Tourist Bureau (a non-commercial organization) out of New York City ran this ad, which promoted Japan as "the land of ceremony," with a tea ceremony as its central focus.
But it's also quick to point out that Japan has modern services as well, like fast trains, big buildings and even baseball.
Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei 1936
Looking at this ad today, it conjures images of the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. This poster was made the year prior, by artist Jupp Wiertz for the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, a German company that operated zeppelin flights. It was also the same company that owned the Hindenburg.
Fun fact: The Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei still operates today. It was revived in 2001 and operates commercial passenger zeppelin flights, although not transatlantic ones.
Australian National Travel Association, 1938
"No other land contains such oddities of feather and fur" is a pretty dang good slogan for Australia, which hosts some of the most dangerous animals in the world.
The ad is terrible at predicting the future, though. The copy invites readers to a place "far from war-troubled zones," although Australia entered World War II on Sept. 3, 1939, about a year after this ad was produced.
'Meeding d'Aviation Nice' 1910
This poster from 1910 is an invitation for pilots and spectators to come to an air show in Nice, France.
It's one of the most celebrated ads of the early 20th century because it utterly captures the imagination (and danger) of early flight.
The plane shown here is believed to be an Esnault-Pelterie R.E.P. 1. An original print recently sold for $16,250.
There are so many movies of such varying quality that a film's production company is practically meaningless now. But in the 1930s, studios like MGM, Paramount and Universal were known for having their own stars — Paramount, for example, had Bing Crosby on its A-list.
MGM was the only Hollywood studio that turned a profit every year during the Great Depression. It also was (and still is) recognizable for its use of the roaring lion, a point they were sure to use in their marketing material.
Another piece by David Klein is an abstract work depicting the bright, shining lights of New York City.
One of these prints sold for over $8,800 at a Christie's auction.
South Shore Line, 1926
South Shore Line is an electrically powered train system that operates between downtown Chicago and South Bend, Indiana. It also was a good way to see some good, old-fashioned football, when men wore thinly padded helmets and were probably concussed for the majority of the game.
The South Shore Line is still in operation and is one of the few interurban trains still running in the United States.
Trans World Airlines, 1960s-1970s
David Klein made some absolutely stunning posters for TWA, and this one for New York is no exception.
There's a steamboat ferry, the Empire State Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Brooklyn Bridge and the giant, all-watching, all-seeing head of the Statue of Liberty watching on in the background.