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‘60s Counter Culture Movement Posters and Handbills Make Impact Half Century Later

Counterculture posters from the ‘60s reveal a time of radical change in America. Counterculture posters from the ‘60s reveal a time of radical change in America.


Being old enough to have both lived and loved through the turbulent period that was 1964-1967, Jack Cassin decided to collect rare paper ephemera from this era and form an archive that would detail the rise of youth culture in America. Because San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury district in particular, was the epicenter of that culture, it is not surprising that a majority of the material he found originated there.

Many readers are likely familiar with the colorful emblematic posters advertising the weekend shows at the Avalon Ballroom and its more famous neighbor the Fillmore. Drawn by artists like Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Wes Wilson, the original cardboard posters and thin paper handbills are now avidly collected and cherished. Some of the more famous examples have been published in countless magazine articles and books, granting them iconic status.

I realized the ones to really collect were not music posters but the ones that were non-commercial and dealt with the hot-button issues of the day…

The much less known and far rarer handbills, screeds and posters in Cassin’s ’60s archive may not have the words Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Grateful Dead written on them, but they memorialize the sociopolitical issues of that period, issues that remain as pertinent as they were 50 years ago.

Rosebud sat down with Cassin and interviewed him about his archive, his journey as a collector and his motivations for starting that search.

Rosebud: Why did you decide to move to San Francisco in 1990 and begin collecting?

Jack Cassin: I have always been a collector, but the ’60s archive is perhaps the closest to me. I lived through the ’60s and was, let’s just say, “turned-on,” so making this collection was natural.

I planned to write a book about the ’60s—a period I call the most misunderstood besides the Biblical period—and then came up with the idea of finding and acquiring some posters to use as illustrations in that book.

Rosebud: So is it fair to say that forming your archive became a larger priority?

JC: I guess so. I realized the ones to really collect were not music posters but the ones that were non-commercial and dealt with the hot-button issues of the day, like the consciousness movement, civil rights, freedom, gay rights, artist rights and, of course, the Vietnam War protest movement.

I also became aware of the roles the Diggers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and a number of other organizations and individuals played in contributing to the flowering of a time in history that seemed short-lived but still covertly lives on almost 50 years later.

Rosebud: What was the message that lives on?

You know, the ’60s were not about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that was the ’70s. The ’60s were all about consciousness and freedom. That was the real message, but because that message was so revolutionary, so anti-establishment and anti-commercial, it was purposely buried under a thick veneer of nonsense hedonistic pseudo-revolution.

Rosebud: What are you going to do with your ‘60s archive?

JC: Well, I would like to see it stay intact and end up somewhere like the Smithsonian or a museum where others could see and study these incredible reminders of what really happened in those nexus years, 1963-1967, of one of the most important and influential decades of American history.

Jack Tells the Tales Behind Some of his Favorite Posters

Grateful Dead At The Fillmore 

Wes Wilson was Bill Graham’s favorite poster artist. That is, up until this one.

Wes once told me he went to see Bill and requested a raise, and Graham turned him down. So Wes got annoyed and used this poster to show him who was the boss. Notice the swastika and the big dollar sign at the bottom.

Graham did not notice and allowed the poster to go into production. But after the show, when Graham finally took a good look at the poster, he immediately fired Wilson.

My copy is inscribed, “For Jack; 8/9/89/our first business deal/ Ben Friedman San Francisco.”

Ben opened a store on Columbus Avenue called Postermat, which housed the 250,000 posters and handbills he bought from Graham. Around the same time, he also bought a truckload of posters from Chet Helms, who ran the Avalon Ballroom.

Postermat was where I bought the first group of posters. Realizing this was the beginning of something that was going to become important in my life, I had Ben memorialize it by signing the poster.

Other collectors thought I was nuts to ruin a rare first print by having Ben scribble on it!

The Mouse/Kelley Be-In handbill

I went down to Santa Cruz, California, because someone gave me the name of a guy who supposedly had a stash of old posters. He only had some common pieces, but he told me about a friend who probably had something I might like.

We drove around for the rest of the afternoon looking for this guy, Casey, with no luck. So I went to find a place to stay for the night, figuring I might as well do some more hunting the next day.

I met an antique dealer who had a small shop down near the pier. He said he knew Casey and could probably find him. Seems Casey had hit hard times and was living in a filthy garage where he had all his worldly possessions, including this picture, the original photo Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley used for their iconic Be-In poster and handbill.

Casey wanted to give it to me because he said I could take care of it and if I did not take it, he would end up losing or wrecking it.

After trying to pay him for it, with no success, I gave the antique dealer who introduced me to Casey $100, under the proviso that he would buy food and some other things for Casey.

And if you look carefully at the Mouse and Kelley piece, you can see it says, “photo: Casey Sonnabend.” Casey shot the photo of the Sadhu, a holy man, when he had been in India!

There is only 1 Digger

Before the hordes descended on Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967, a number of locals knew they had to do something to help manage the situation.

One of the most present and important of the groups that took on this mission was the Diggers, who modeled themselves after a combination of the 19th-century utopian movement of the same name and Robin Hood’s merry band of men.

My archive contains probably the largest collection of Digger paper ephemera.

As a true anarchist group, the Diggers had no real leader, and the phrase “There is only one Digger” was promoted to demonstrate this credo.

Actually though, a guy named Emmett Grogan was the foremost “head,” and his energy, drive and commitment were remarkable. He was truly everywhere, and without him the Diggers probably would never have been as successful as they were.

In the mid ’70s, Emmett supposedly died of a heroin overdose in New York City.

He, like many of the avatars of the Haight-Asbury community, became disgusted and disillusioned after the Summer of Love. Some successfully left and moved into the countryside, banding together as communes. Others got jobs and re-entered the “real world,” and still others were unable to reconcile their radical ideas with the real world and they retreated. Some became yogis, others drug addicts, alcoholics and “buzzaholics,” to use a phrase a dear friend of mine coined, and they disappeared into the closed world of addiction.

San Francisco Mime Troupe

The Mime Troupe was started and run by a guy named Ron Davis, and the satire their plays provoked inspired many people to break away from established norms. Their plays were mostly performed in the street, often without proper permits, and their brushes with the police and city government are legendary.

This play, Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, was most famous, and its hard-edged look at race relations was not welcomed by either whites, who preferred to patronize the black community, or the negro community, who were just starting to call themselves blacks, rather than the old negro tag.

The Haight-Ashbury was pretty much surrounded by black communities, and the relations between them were often strained and difficult.

Love Book


The Love Book was written by the poet Lenore Kandel. The book was filled with beautiful poetry that surely was not sexy or dirty—it was literature of the highest degree.

But because the title seemed salacious to the city government, it was deemed pornography, and the Psychedelic Shop, a famous store on Haight Street that sold all kinds of hippie-trippy things, was raided and all the copies of the book were seized, and the manager of the store, Allen Cohen, was arrested. So was Lenore Kandel later that day.

This was one of many really foolish attempts by the city of San Francisco to try and contain, and in fact destroy, the Haight-Ashbury freedom and love movement.

It did not succeed, and the court case resulted in a victory for Kandel and the Psychedelic Shop and a big loss for the city.

This was one of many seminal events that in their own small way helped to promote for a brief time that new spirit and consciousness, which was born on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury.

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The most important band of the ‘60s counterculture movement was arguably the Grateful Dead.
Last modified on Thursday, 18 July 2013 20:26

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