There was a time when sumo wrestlers and kimono-clad ladies made shipping companies look beautiful.

Compared to the noisy, hashtag-laden advertising that bombards us today, hand-painted advertisements like these have a beautifully serene quality to them. This collection, which spans three eras, from late Meiji (1868–1912) to Taisho (1912–1926) and the early Showa period (1926–1989), takes us back to a time when grand steamships and passenger cargo liners were synonymous with strength, romance and adventure. So it’s fitting that they feature pretty women in kimono and a sumo wrestler straddling two continents.

▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1916


This collection of posters appeared in the book Miwaku no Funatabi, published by the Museum of Maritime Science in 1993.

▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1916


▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1916


The posters feature a number of ladies holding binoculars, invoking visions of unusual sights and faraway lands.

▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1909


▼ Oriental Steamship Co., 1914


▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1912


▼ Oriental Steamship Co., 1919 (Chinese poster)


Back in the early 20th century, mail also travelled by ship, covering domestic and international routes.

▼ Japan Mail Steamship Co. (NYK), 1928-1930


▼ Korean Mail Steamship Co., 1918


▼ Japan Mail Steamship Co. (NYK), 1914


▼ Japan Mail Steamship Co. (NYK), 1910


The route for this steamship covered Hokkaido and the northern islands which were once in Japan’s territory. Sakhalin, the island on the top left, was seized by Russia near the end of World War II and the islands on the right remain disputed territories in the Kuril Island chain.

▼ Japan Mail Steamship Co. (NYK), 1909


The “Three Sisters”, Nitta Maru, Yawata Maru and Kasuga Maru, were originally designed as passenger ships but were converted into warships in the 1940s. All three vessels were destroyed during the war.

▼ Japan Mail Steamship Co. (NYK), 1940


These posters remain an intriguing and important insight into pre-war Japan. Studying a culture and a time in a nation’s history through its printed advertisements can truly be an eye-opening experience.

▼ Osaka Mercantile Steamship Co., Ltd., 1909


Source and Images: Japaaan