Collecting Vintage Movie Posters

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I’ve always loved old movies and so it was only natural to get into movie posters once I started collecting and selling antiques. I love the graphics and it’s a really easy way to add some funky retro flair to your apartment.

If you’re getting into collecting, there’s a few key things you should know, especially before shelling out the big bucks. Here’s a simple breakdown of movie poster history, and what you should be looking for (and be wary of) if you’re looking to start collecting.

POSTER SIZE

Different sizes can tell you a lot about the age of the poster, as well as its value. Plus, if you’re looking for a particular size for your home, it’s handy to know the dimensions of these commonly used terms.

ONE SHEET (1sh)
The one sheet is the most common, and generally most collectible of American issue movie posters. Prior to 1985, most measured 27″ x 41″, while since then they tend to be slightly smaller, measuring 27″ x 40″. These are printed in a vertical format and were initially delivered to the theatre folded, often one vertical and three horizontal, sometimes with 3 vertical folds. These folds in vintage posters are expected, and not considered damage, generally do not take away from the value of the poster. Since the 1980s, posters have started being delivered rolled, so if you come across something that you think is vintage, but has absolutely no fold marks, proceed with caution. It’s more likely a reproduction.

INSERT
Another vertical format, these haven’t been issued since the 1980s. They measure 14″ x 36″ and are printed on thick stock paper, again delivered folded. They are often rarer than one sheets and quite popular due to their smaller size; personally, these have always been my favourite format. I have quite a few them currently listed for sale on my Etsy shop, Tucked Away Antiques.

HALF-SHEET
These 22″ x 28″ sized horizontal posters are rarer than either of those previously listed, and use of them was also discontinued in the 1980s. Once again, they were originally delivered to theatres folded (twice) but later ones were rolled.

40×60
No fancy name for this one, as you might have guessed they measured 40″ x 60″and are extremely rare compared to a one sheet. They were printed on heavy cardstock and because of this, are difficult to find in mint condition; they creased easily. These only existed for major motion pictures and were meant for display inside and outside of theatres. They were printed in much smaller quantities, adding to their value.

SUBWAY/TWO SHEET
This horizontal format measures 41″ x 54″ or 45″ x 60″ and is very popular and rare. They are printed on thicker paper than one sheets and were often issued as advance materials, for display in subways. Could be rolled or folded, less printed than previously mentioned formats, and due to size (about twice that of a one sheet) are scarce and desirable.

 

THREE SHEET
Likely the largest size any average collector would seek out is this 41″ x 81″ vertical poster. Designed to be pasted to small billboards these too were issued folded and stopped being produced in the 1970s. They are roughly three times the size of a one sheet, sometimes printed in multiple sections and make for a very bold statement. Once again, these are very rare compared to a one sheet.

WINDOW CARD
This smaller vertical format measures 14″ x 22″ and is printed on thick stock paper with a blank are on the top for venue info and show dates. Generally unfolded, because of their size. Since they were meant to be used by specific theatres, having handwritten info at the top, or having the top removed completely, is not generally considered damage, and does not lower the value of the poster. However, they do go for considerably less than any of the those listed above.

LOBBY CARD
Lobby cards are fairly easy to find in secondhand shops, and as they were often produced in a series of 8, you will find several versions for a film. They measure 11″ x 14″ and are generally horizontal, meant for, as the name says, display in a theatre lobby. Generally they are meant to depict all stars and represent the entire film, though scene cards will feature specific scenes from the film.

 

There are many other formats out there, but I stuck to the most common ones that you are more likely to encounter, and that the average person could find space for in their home. For a visual reference, here’s a handy chart from cinemamasterpieces.com.

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NATIONAL SCREEN SERVICE (NSS) NUMBERS

In the 1940s, the National Screen Service started a date and coding system to keep track of the materials passing through it. While there are some weird exceptions (which you can read about here) for the most part, it’s pretty east to figure out.

Say for example, you saw

52/189

You would know that the poster was issued in 1952, and that it was the 189th film coded by the NSS that year. Basically, the number before the dash is what we’re interested in.

Now say you have one like this

R-52/189

The “R” represents “re-release” and means that, while the image may be what was used in 1952, that particular poster was released later.

Another thing that can tip you off to a non-original print is the copyright date; while the NSS number is generally in the bottom right, you can often find the copyright on the left hand corner. If you’ve got a 1952 copyright, and a 53/119 NSS number, even without an “R”, you know it wasn’t printed when the film was first released. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in value. Sometimes films were issued overseas and then in America, giving them a different copyright & NSS number. In the 1970s the dash was eliminated, but the system otherwise stayed the same.

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There’s much more to be said about dating posters and determining value, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Check out this very comprehensive guide to learn more.

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