Century of peril

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What Rospa posters say about the changing face of Britain

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These posters were aimed at keeping the British workforce safe from preventable accidents

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) has been warning the public about the perils lurking in everyday situations for 100 years. Its poster campaigns over the decades reflect how a changing world has created new dangers, as well as exposing how attitudes towards women have changed.

In 1916, a public meeting was held at London”s Caxton Hall in response to a sharp rise in traffic accidents on the capital”s streets. These had been blamed on restricted street lighting implemented during World War One.

A London “Safety First” Council was elected to tackle the problem and so began the organisation that was to become Rospa.

Its first campaign in 1917 changed the pedestrian rule so that walkers faced oncoming traffic, said Errol Taylor, the organisation”s deputy chief executive.

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Rospa started out as the London “Safety First” Council and its first campaign was aimed at tackling road deaths

Deaths caused by people stepping into the path of vehicles fell by 70% in the first year, he said.

In 1919 short cinema films promoting work safety were made.

The following year a Think Safety campaign was launched to deal with the 1.5 million new motorists who took to the road following the end of the war.

In 1933, the first home safety leaflet rapidly sold 10,000 copies and had to be reprinted.

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This poster was aimed at workers supporting the war effort

Some of the industrial safety posters from World War Two depict men who have been blinded after failing to wear goggles at work.

“These highlight the need to keep the British workforce, which was supporting the war effort, safe from preventable accidents,” said Mr Taylor.

He said some posters were aimed specifically at women, who were entering the industrial workforce at this time.

The way in which women – as well as men – are represented in the posters gives us an insight into their roles in society at the time, said Dr Gemma Commane, a lecturer in media and communications at Birmingham City University.

“We might assume an image is sexist due to narrow depictions of femininity or masculinity, but we need to step back a little,” she said.

The poster of a nurse holding a bloodied stiletto would appear patronising and sexist to many people today.

But Mr Taylor said its intention was to keep women safe as they made the transition from the home to the industrial sector to play their important role in the war effort.

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The poster aimed at preventing falls shows a woman as a cook and a man getting up to mischief, said Dr Gemma Commane

Dr Commane said Rospa”s Keep the Stairs Clear poster was “quite slapstick” and shows “stereotypical gender roles… with the wife being the cook and the man getting up to mischief”.

“This paints a narrow view of masculinity, as well as femininity. But the representation is accessible and the audience “gets” the meaning. It is not intentionally sexist.”

Other posters reveal the people in society who were deemed to need the most protection.

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Industrial safety became a core issue after World War Two

“The Don”t Lose Sight of Them poster places the wife and child as precious things, but also taps into male anxiety around pressures to provide for the family,” said Dr Commane.

“Although this image depicts heterosexuality and perhaps marriage this is still very much a valid identity.”

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This 1952 poster shows how road safety was a priority

Design expert Paul Rennie published a book of vintage Rospa posters called Safety First.

The Not Yet Five – Help Them Survive poster that was circulated in 1952 shows how road safety was becoming a priority.

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Drink-driving was “endemic” at the time this poster was released, according to Paul Rennie

Dr Rennie said: “Kids playing in the road was a common feature of the time, hence lots of road safety messages about looking out for kids.

“The drink-drive poster was from a time when drink-driving was endemic.”

But by the 60s and 70s public information posters were being used less and less, said Jo Bullock, Rospa”s head of communications.

In some of the later campaigns before Rospa chose other ways to get its message across, animals were often depicted in a bid to deliver memorable safety advice to the public.

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This 1963 poster shows a cockerel crowing to a hen over a smashed egg
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“Cats are good animals to use for safety because they have nine lives, good night vision and always land on their paws,” Dr Rennie said

“Although we don”t do large-scale poster campaigns any more we do still talk about safety,” said Ms Bullock.

“We know accidents are the biggest killer of children and young people up to the age of 29 so it”s really important we communicate the messages,” she said.

“We do a lot of work online now, on social media, we talk to parents and carers and we have launched a new free telephone helpline.”

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This poster published in 1976 shows a cat with an umbrella falling from the sky

Mr Taylor said that despite the use of poster campaigns having fallen out of fashion, the art itself remains memorable and appealing.

“Although communication styles have changed considerably since Rospa”s safety poster campaigns were at their height from the 1930s to the 1970s, many of the messages and imagery are timeless.”

As well as marking its centenary, 2016 is the 40th anniversary of Rospa”s headquarters moving from the capital to Birmingham. The posters will go on show at the city”s library from 22 May to 14 July.