Alfred Himmelrich began collecting when he was in high school. "I went down to Read Street one day," he recalls, "and I saw a Cream of Wheat advertisement in a shop. I thought the subject matter was funny, so I bought it, for $4 or $5. And then I started finding others, and eventually I had about 150 Cream of Wheat ads."
Later he turned to other interests, mainly the arts and crafts of the turn of the century. Now the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the museum-going public, can be glad he did. The recently opened exhibit "American Art Posters of the 1890s" is drawn entirely from the collection of 67 posters he and his wife Dana gave to the museum, and reflects more than a decade of !B collecting.
The art poster bug hit the 39-year-old Himmelrich in the late 1970s. Not long after graduating from college he wandered into the Howard Street shop of Cal Schumann and was struck by the turn-of-the-century posters and decorative arts there. His first purchase in the field was a work by the English artist Aubrey Beardsley, but he soon concentrated in the American field.
"I went into Craig Flinner's shop [on Charles Street] and bought a Penfield of a Harper's May issue, with two cats on it. Soon I got two of Bradley's posters, for the Chap-Book, and that was all I needed to trigger me."
The 1890s was a great decade for the advertising art poster, in both Europe and America. American artists were influenced by the Europeans, but design here had its own characteristics, says Jay M. Fisher, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs.
"Designs of American posters are broader and more abstract," he says. "There are flat areas of color and more modern design.
"Then, the American advertising talent was to get the message across. Sometimes the message gets lost in European posters, but with the Americans you get it in one hit, with graphic power. These posters are more immediate and closer to everyday life than European ones. They deal in real people in real people's clothes, images that one can identify with."
One can see that most clearly in the designs of Edward Penfield, an extremely successful designer for Harper's. (Most of these posters were made for publishers, primarily of periodicals such as Harper's, Lippincott's and the Chap-Book). Penfield's straightforward, bold designs often feature just one or two figures and a reference to the time of year. For a July issue, a young woman lights a bunch of firecrackers that spell out the month. In March, a young woman runs after an issue of the magazine that's blown away, as the March Hare watches.
On themuseum's walls, the Penfields are joined by posters from other leading artists of the period -- works that reveal the design genius and versatility of Will H. Bradley, the bold solid colors of William L. Carqueville, the fantasy-like approach of Maxfield Parrish, and other notable artists such as Florence Lundborg, Ethel Reed, Joseph J. Gould Jr. and Frank Hazenplug.
The posters cost him from several hundred to several thousand dollars, says Himmelrich, who owns an industrial supply company. He got some at auction, but prefers the more intimate contact with dealers.
"I like having relationships with people who share my interests," he says. "I've bought from all over, including from Europe. I met a man in Aspen, Colo., who knew a woman in France who had a collection, and I got some Bradleys from her, the Harper's Christmas poster, a lot of things."
From extensive reading he familiarized himself with the artists he was collecting. "I was never that academic about the actual printing process, but I became interested in the lives of the people. Bradley's father was a printer, and his expertise in the printing process was better than anyone. But he was a disappointed person, who watched Penfield do better. Yet now he's considered the best of the American art poster designers.
"Ethel Reed just disappeared. She did a few posters when she was very young, and then just vanished. She probably married and settled someplace with a garden."
In time, Himmelrich amassed an impressive collection, but he made no attempt to get posters by every designer of the period. "I did not feel I needed everything," he says. "My goal was to collect what I liked."
And then he stopped. "I live in a small house, I like to see what I have, and the space is limited. Besides, collecting is a knowledge process, and I like finding out about new things. Right now I'm collecting glass and Mexican crafts, and having fun with that."
Then two years ago the Himmelriches gave the collection to the BMA.
"I didn't want to just indulge myself," says the collector. "I'm bringing up a family, and I don't want my children to think society as a whole cannot have access to these things.
"And the museum was important to me as a child. I think it's important to keep institutions healthy, and these are a complement to the museum's French posters."
Fisher concurs. "Among our collection-building projects, one is the poster collection," he says. "We have a pretty impressive collection of European posters, but we had absolutely nothing American from the 1890s.
"To get a comprehensive collection, just like that, was just perfect. I hope it will encourage others to give, so that we'll have an even more comprehensive collection."
Looking around at the posters, the collector says, "I miss all this, but I'm happy I did it. I think it's important to do it when you're young."