Spreading the Word for a Cause: Exploring Broadsides, Flyers, and Posters from the Library’s Collections

This post is by Haleigh Reutershan, a Teaching with Primary Sources intern at the Library of Congress.

Social media makes it pretty easy to stay aware and learn about social issues and movements going on around the world. But how did people unite and join a cause before social media? How were messages communicated? Flyers and broadsides have acted as vehicles to spread information and unite workers behind a cause, often unionization. Unions emerged in response to poor treatment that workers endured, for many workers’ unions promised protection and a glimmer of hope for a brighter, safer future.

Studying examples of flyers and broadsides that show how people have garnered workers’ attention to raise support for a cause can help students think about the ways people communicate information to a wide audience.

Advertisment from the American Federation of Labor to encourage people to join the union.

Trade unions foster education and uproot ignorance …. American Federation Of Labor

Image of three women holding picket signs relating to labor issues.


Chicago Women’s Labor History

Protect your hands! You work with them. Robert Muchley, 1936

If necessary, help students understand that broadsides are single-sheet notices or announcements printed on one or both sides, intended to be read unfolded. Using formal language conventions, broadsides tend to address serious topics to inform the reader of current issues. Next, show students this broadside by the American Federation of Labor from the Library’s Printed Ephemera Collection that describes the benefits of trade unions.

Ask students:

  • What do you notice about this broadside?
  • Who do you think made this?
  • Who do you think the intended audience is?
  • What is the message of this broadside? How do you know?
  • How successful is it in sharing this message?

Ask students what they wonder about labor unions, after examining the broadside. Follow up with a discussion about labor history. Ask students to work alone or with a partner to learn more about labor unions and conditions that prompt workers to unionize.

Next, share this poster about unions with your students. Ask them the questions listed above, and then put the broadsides side by side for comparison, asking:

  • How is this flyer different than the broadside we looked at? Why do you think it is different?
  • How is this flyer similar to the broadside?

Finally, show your students this poster from the WPA Posters collection. You can compare this poster to the Chicago Women’s History poster. All of the flyers we have looked at deal with workers’ issues. However, this WPA poster has a different message than the other two. Ask your students the questions from above but then add:

  • How is this poster similar to the other two we looked at? How is it different?
  • Why do you think it is different?

To wrap it up, use these questions to open a discussion with your students about media literacy.

  • How does the author behind a piece of content influence the message being put forward?
  • How does the intended audience of influence the type of message and the way the message is shared?
  • How does technology influence the way information is spread?

What does looking at flyers/posters/broadsides reveal about how people in the past communicated? How can studying modes of communication used throughout history connect students with the past?

Please share any insights that emerge from the discussion in the comments!