The Daily Heller: The Banner Years of Mary Lowdnes

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Have you heard of the artist Mary Lowdnes? In the late 19th- and early 20th-century period of struggle for English women, Lowdnes (1857–1929) was busily sewing, stitching and painting banners that promoted voting rights in the U.K. Her designs for these banners—and banners in general—have been overlooked as essential campaign tools, yet are no less important than other forms of mass communication. They brought messages to the people as fixtures of parades and demonstrations.

Banners, ostensibly fabric bearing a symbol, logo, slogan or some sort of message, play an important role in communications history. In case you wondered: “Banner” derives from the French bannière and the Latin bandum, which means a cloth out of which a flag is created. The ancient Romans may have started the trend by emblazoning coats of arms on banners outside noble homes for identification. Knights of yore used to carry banners around the battlefield so they could easily be identified. The use of banners in government dates as far back as the early 1800s, when they were used to illustrate workers’ demands in the first trade unions.

Ultimately, banners (not to be confused with pennants) are a cheap way of repetitive marketing; they can be used over and over again at different “events” targeting different markets.

Mary Lowndes worked as a stained glass artist during the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in England around 1880 and was influenced by medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration.

In 1907, she utilized her skills to support her political views and established the Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL), with a focus on creating dynamic posters, postcards and banners for suffrage events.

In 1909, Lowndes published a seven-page pamphlet titled Banners and Banner-making, after being asked by women: “Can we make banners ourselves?” In it, she gives advice on dimensions, how to use recognizable symbols in new and clever ways, color choice and more, while repeatedly praising the value of good design and the power it can have. “A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half-show and half-conceal a device you long to unravel,” she wrote. “Choose purple and gold for ambitions, red for courage, green for long-cherished hopes.”

The Design Album of Mary Lowndes (from the LSE archive in London) features her creations and those of other members of the Artists’ Suffrage League. The book includes photographs and designs for banners carried in the June 1908 procession of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), designs for the Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions (April 1909) and the heraldic shields for 50 NUWSS branches for a meeting at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1910. The group’s banners also celebrated British heroines like Boadicea, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Josephine Butler, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Bronte.

In addition to The Design Album of Mary Lowndes, the LSE archive hosts the Iconic Artists Suffrage League Album, containing over 212 designs for suffrage banners, including textile swatches from the originals, manuscript designs and drawings, photographs, leaflets and other ephemera used in the fight for equal rights.