Tech Time Capsule: Early 1990s Clip Art Captured an Era

April 15th, 2024 by Benj Edwards

1990s Clip Art of a Woman Walking into a Store

Clip art collections from the early 1990s are today’s forgotten cultural time capsules, freezing life three decades ago as digital illustrations full of obsolete tech, vintage fashions, and more. Just for fun, let’s explore computer art from a time just before the Internet hit it big.

[Benj’s note—I wrote this piece years ago, and it never saw the light of day until now. Hope you enjoy.]

The Origins of Clip Art

The concept of clip art originated in the pre-computer era, when graphics designers would browse printed collections of royalty-free illustrations to cut and paste into their compositions.

When desktop publishing came to personal computers in the mid-1980s, the need arose for digital artwork that people could paste into newsletters, banners, signs, and more. Illustrators created these artworks and publishers collected them onto volumes of floppy disks or on CD-ROM, and users would load them into applications such as WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Aldus PageMaker.

Historically, artists created most clip art in a vector format, which means the images could be scaled to any size and not lose quality. That makes it extra fun today to take an image designed for very low resolution and scale it up to 3000 pixels wide to see details that you might otherwise miss.

I browsed through about a dozen early 1990s CD-ROM clip art collections found on the Internet Archive and Jason Scott’s CD archive and picked out a handful of examples of the artform that represent an unusual and rare peek into our digital past.

Obsolete Technology

Obsolete Tech in 1990s Clip Art

Clip art collections from the early 1990s are full of obsolete technology, such as 35mm film, pagers, brick-like cell phones, typewriters, word processors, VHS tapes, huge answering machines, overhead projectors, film cameras, and much more. Browsing these images somehow makes you feel like a digital archeologist discovering the tools people used in the past (even if you lived through that time period yourself).

People and Offices

An office in 1990s Clip Art

It’s funny to see graphical depictions of vintage computer tech in contemporary use. Here, a man and a woman in an office look at an unusually large CRT monitor next to a digitizer tablet (looks like a professional CAD setup). Behind the woman we see a beefy, double-wide workstation of some kind. And of course, the fashions are vintage as well. Just another slice of life courtesy of clip art.

Scrumptious Digital Food

Food in 1990s Clip Art

Some clip art started out as scanned printed works that were then converted into black line-art vectors and colorized on the computer. Others (like the cheeseburger seen here) originated as native digital illustrations. This vintage food art has a distinctive aesthetic that hearkens back to a more delicious age. It’s not every day that a 30 year-old cheeseburger makes you hungry.

Vintage Computers

Old Computers in 1990s Clip Art

I ran across thousands of depictions of old computers from the 1980s and early 1990s in clip art collections, and each one is an amazing miniature work of art. It seemed like some artists wanted to cover every possible computer model. Here we see a clip art representation of an Atari Portfolio (of all things) on the left and the spitting image of a Laser 128, a popular Apple II clone released in 1984, on the right.

Cheesy Store Signs

Cheesy Signs in 1990s Clip Art

Silly pre-made commercial signs rank among the most common items in some early digital clip art collections. Presumably, a small shop (in the age before retail monoculture) could print out their own signs to promote in-store sales or other events. Because who wouldn’t want Santa’s leftovers?

A Vintage Car Phone—and a Vintage Car

A Car Phone in 1990s Clip Art

In the 1980s and early 1990s, some people on the more wealthy end of the spectrum used bulky “bag phone” cellular phones in their cars (And they considered them tiny and portable at the time). Here we see a handset for just such a cell phone rendered as clip art—and a vintage car that looks like a Cutlass Cierra to go with it.

Vintage Fashions

Fashions in 1990s Clip Art

Not surprisingly, the people depicted in early 1990s clip art often wear early 1990s clothing. In some cases, you’ll find holdovers of 1980s fashions, likely because the illustrators sometimes traced images from older sources such as magazines or clothing catalogs right at the turn of the 1990s.

Old-Timey Computer Input Methods

Old Computer Input Methods in 1990s Clip Art

Vintage computer peripherals abound in old clip art, including modems, printers, scanners, and more. But do you recognize these vintage input methods? Starting in the upper left going clockwise, we see a digitizer used to input coordinates into a CAD program, a handheld scanner similar to the Logitech Scanman, and a small serial trackball designed to clip onto the side of a keyboard.

Playing Video Games

Playing Video Games in 1990s Clip Art

Playing video games in the early 1990s looked exactly like this. Here we see two blocky robots facing off on a vintage CRT television while a kid uses what looks like a Spectravideo Quickshot XII joystick for the NES. What at first looks like a pile of colorful VHS tapes is in fact a NES control deck. Good times, all around.

And Finally, Vintage Boots

Suspiciously 1980s-looking boots in 1990s Clip Art

We end our time travel with a pair of suspiciously-1980s-looking boots. Does that mean some of this artwork is actually older than the early 1990s? Perhaps. Although Macs supported color as early as 1987 (for a very high price), colorful clip art wasn’t all that common until the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990. Either way, it’s likely the artist was drawing on fashions that didn’t seem that old at the time.

Seeing vintage clip-art scaled to modern high resolutions feels like pulling a slice of the past up to our future time, and these images are only 25-30 years old. If these artworks survive, imagine the delight of someone opening them up 200 years from now. The cheeseburger will still look delicious.

21 Responses to “Tech Time Capsule: Early 1990s Clip Art Captured an Era”

  1. Idiot Says:

    35mm film is not obsolete

  2. Martin Says:

    As far as mass usage, 35mm is indeed obsolete.

    Otherwise you could argue that people (me included) still play old arcade games or use VHS machines.

    Greetings from someone who handles a lot of 35mm (and 28mm, 16mm, 9.5mm and 8mm) film.

  3. Steve Says:

    Great trip down memory lane. In my experience, people did not “often” use “bag phones” — these were expensive luxury or executive business accessories. In the early 90s people “often” used a pay phone if they needed to make a call when away from a home or desk. It took another 10 years (early 2000s) for cell phones (the candy bar style, etc.) to come into widespread use. And then another 10 years (2010) for smart phones to make everything before them obsolete.

  4. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks Steve, and yes great point. My wording was definitely poor there. I was trying to imply that people mostly used bag phones in cars, and not outside of cars. So I clarified it and re-worded it.

    Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading.

  5. Vicky WK Says:

    I still have my parents “car” phone ?

  6. GeneAnn Schaefer Says:

    I use to use clipart ALL the time. I find it interesting that all your clipart images are in color, because unless they were mechanically color-separated, everything I used was in black and white. If I was allowed to use two color, I had to hand cut cut a ‘rubylith’ overlay for the second color. Three colors! Forget it! LOL

  7. Benj Edwards Says:

    BTW where are you guys finding the link to this article? Lots of people are coming in, and my stats program can’t figure out the referral link for some reason.

    Oh, and thanks for visiting VC&G!

  8. J Bonifay Says:

    Benj Edwards – Answering your question: I followed the link to this article in a1440 Daily Digest email.

  9. Alexander G Says:

    @Benj Edwards

    I found the article amusing enough to supply a reply. 1440 Daily Digest brought me here.

  10. Sergio Mendez Says:

    Hello Benj,
    I found a link to your article via an online newsletter: 1440 Daily Digest under the etcetera section of the email for today, April 18, 2024. Loved the article and clip art!

  11. Jim Mooney Says:

    My path to this site started off a link in The Whitespace newsletter from It’s a design resource. I tried to retrace my path but failed.

  12. Jo Says:

    I got the link from my 1440 news emails that I get every day ? I was one of the first people in New Zealand to use Windows and love seeing all these old clip arts. Definitely shades of 80’s clothes, and those boots take me back lol

  13. Jeremiah Says:

    They are probably coming from an email 1440 Daily Digest.

    They linked this article.

  14. Jeff Says:


    1440 (a daily news digest) published a link to this article today. This is how the link directs to you:

    Great article.

  15. Melissa Says:

    Benj, I stumbled here through my news, 1440. Great reminiscing! Made me laugh, made me miss some things… thank you for a great article!

  16. Mike P. Says:

    Benj: This page was featured in the “Etcetera” portion of the 1440 Daily Digest email news summary on April 18, 2024. That’s how I got here, so I assume that’s the source of all your traffic.

    I worked in a corporate training department in the early 1990s. We were just starting to get into using Harvard Graphics (RIP) to do on-screen presentations. These clip art samples really capture the spirit of those early years, when every image had a drop shadow.

    And the Logitech Scanman. That really takes me back.

  17. Duane Says:

    Also here from a link provided by 1440 in their daily news email digest. I lived through this era and it brings back memories. Love the vintage fashion frozen in time. Also the 1990s were my golden age of video gaming. I’m sure I have old neck injuries from staring up at my TV for too many hours.

  18. SirFatty Says:

    Article source: RSS feed via a Netvibes landing page I have been using for 15 years. Since Technologizer days…

  19. Benj Edwards Says:

    Glad to hear from you again, SirFatty! Also, glad the RSS feed is still working 🙂

  20. Emily McGee Says:

    This just really took me back! And the boots in that last image have fallen in and out of style at least twice since the creation of that clip art!
    Thanks for this stroll down memory lane!

  21. Chester Says:

    Great piece as usual! I bet the Playing Video Games one was trying to make an allusion to Berserk, given the maze and the blockiness…

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