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American Posters of the Great War
Dr. Libby Chenault
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

During the "Great War," the lithographed poster was the harbinger, reporter, and arbiter of news, opinion, and sentiment on both the frontlines and the home front. This evocative form of public communication had the advantage of being able both to go and to remain everywhere. When the United States of America entered the conflict in April 1917, the poster as a medium of expression was not new. In the decades preceding the First World War, not only had many formal artists been drawn to the medium, but the poster, with its graphic appeal, had also become a tool of advertising, commerce, and industry. Innovations in color lithography and the development of larger and faster printing presses in the second half of the nineteenth century greatly facilitated the emergence of the modern, mass-produced poster defined by its powerful integration of emotionally evocative graphic images with brief, but direct and effective, textual messages.

Harry A. Garfield, head of the wartime United States Fuel Administration, said, "I can get the authority to write a column or a page about fuel—but I cannot make everybody or even anybody read it. But if I can get a striking drawing with or without a legend of a few lines, everyone who runs by must see it." Continuing in this vein, Joseph Pennell wrote: "That is the whole secret of the appeal of the poster—and by the poster the governments of the world have appealed to the people, who need not know how to read in order to understand, if the design is effective and explanatory." American Artists were working with and for the government of their country, working to communicate with the people at home, at work, and in the camps overseas.

As America went to war, officials in the United States, like those in Europe, quickly found the poster to be what the Publicity Bureau termed "a silent and powerful recruiter." Agencies, public and private, rushed to engage artists to create war posters. In just two years, America printed more than twenty million copies of perhaps 2,500 posters in support of the war effort, more posters than all the other belligerents combined. The purpose of this government-sponsored art was to communicate essential information rapidly and efficiently (in the era that preceded radio broadcasting). By all accounts these propaganda posters excelled in conveying the right message to their intended audience. In his Liberty Loan poster book, artist Joseph Pennell explained: "When the United States wished to make public its wants, whether of men or money, it found art—as the European countries had found—was the best medium."

The demands of war challenged American artists to create posters in aid of propaganda, recruiting, relief, and conservation with the same energy that had previously been reserved for the creation of great exhibition pictures. World War One poster artists would range from some of the best-known painters and illustrators of the day—Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, and Howard Chandler Christy—to commercial artists, even students and other amateurs. The war efforts led these artists to inquire, perhaps for the first time, into the nature and possibilities of the medium. The most successful war poster artists generally came from the ranks of popular magazine and book illustrators who were trained not to simplify and eliminate but to be realistic, detailed, and, above all, evocative. James Montgomery Flagg's "Uncle Sam," originally produced as a cover for Leslie's Illustrated, became the prototype for all posters with a central figure pointing a finger at the viewer, and his "I Want You for the U. S. Army" was and remains one of the most famous posters of all time.

Flagg and the other posters artists worked for the Division of Pictorial Publicity, a branch of the Committee of Public Information. Formed just one week after America declared war on Germany, the CPI coordinated the federal government's broad-based effort to mold public opinion in support of the war. (For more on the propaganda campaign, see the Introduction to "The Home Front", especially the Mobilizing Resources and Patriotism & Politics sections.) The DPI was organized in New York under the direction of Charles Dana Gibson. Joseph Pennell served as an associate chairman of the Pictorial Division while continuing to produce designs and writing Joseph Pennell's Liberty Loan Poster, a short work describing the essential elements of the war poster. Division branches in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco soon followed. The New York group met weekly to select designs that were forwarded to Washington, D. C. where government bureaucrats made choices based on social, economic, or cultural characteristics rather than artistic quality. The Division accepted approximately 1,500 designs, about half of which were used for posters. Various government branches, the Shipping Board, the YMCA and many other organizations used these designs. Exceptionally, the Navy had its own poster bureau directed by Henry Reuterdahl.

The appeal of the war poster was direct and typically emotional rather than intellectual. The objective of the poster was to induce instantaneous comprehension of its message and to urge the viewer to act. The goals were to attract the attention of the target audience, make a clear and specific suggestion or impression, and provide a lasting influence. The qualities of effective poster design were breadth of appeal combined with strength, simplicity, and legibility of design. A well-designed poster was instantly comprehensible, leaving nothing to be studied, deciphered, or overlooked. Many finely crafted posters have continued to attract attention and to deliver their message long after the conclusion of the campaigns for which they were designed. Theoretically, the propaganda poster was capable of communicating its message graphically, without words. A choice phrase or ringing appeal, typically of ten words or less, usually served to double its value: "Lend As They Fight", "Teamwork Wins", or "Halt the Hun!". A well-chosen phrase could draw attention to desired themes such as patriotism, heroism, or determination, while proving highly memorable.

Just as American government enrolled young men to fight the war overseas, so American artists drafted familiar symbols (patriotic, heroic, and sentimental) into the service of propaganda. Gibson's and Christy's American beauties appeared in their traditional role of the girl next door in aid of recruitment or assumed the heroic drapery of Liberty or Victory to urge participation in war work or liberty loans. While numerous appeals focused on traditional female roles of sweetheart, mother and housewife, the propaganda posters show how the war opened to young women the new public roles and responsibilities. "Uncle Sam" appealed not only for U. S. Army recruits but this patriotic icon also called for home front service to the National Industrial Conservation Movement, the United States Fuel Administration, the Liberty Loan, and War Savings Stamps.

While the majority of American war posters appealed to the ideals of unity, patriotism, service, sacrifice, and the higher values of humanity, certain propaganda posters were designed to evoke negative ethnic stereotypes and nativist sentiments. Posters with slogans such as "Civilization vs. Barbarism", "Hun or Home", "Help Us Make It Hot for the Kaiser", and "Help Stop This: Buy W.S.S. & Keep Him Out of America", tended to depict the German soldier as superhuman in size, brutal and fiendish in character, and the Kaiser as undersized, trifling, and ridiculous.

However we judge the message of the posters in hindsight, there is little doubt that they succeeded in their primary purpose of eliciting a strong response from Americans of their period. Making dramatic use of emotion-laden symbols such as the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, and Uncle Sam, these posters served as a call to action when democracy was in peril and reinforced an American's pride in country and his or her innate patriotism and readiness for sacrifice. Such posters also had the psychological importance of bringing the war home to the civilians and suggesting relatively small but meaningful sacrifices on their part. In addition to the reminders of the soldiers at the front, posters showed the civilian population what they could do to aid those soldiers (enlist, buy bonds or war savings stamps) and win the war (conservation, relief). (For more on the civilian response to the war, see The Home Front/Mobilizing Resources.)

In North Carolina, as elsewhere in the United States, citizens would have seen locally produced and federally distributed posters on the streets and mounted in factories, businesses, and public buildings. Unfortunately for historians, posters were an ephemeral medium. Most of the millions of posters produced were soon pasted over or destroyed by the elements after they were read. The posters included in this site are among the relatively few copies that have survived intact and in good condition. They are a small part of the holdings of posters and other graphic materials from both world wars in the Bowman Gray Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library. This remarkable collection includes approximately 1,100 American posters from World War I, one of the largest and best preserved collections of such materials and one of the first for which online catalog records have been created for the individual posters.

As part of "North Carolinians and the Great War" project, the Academic Affairs Library has digitized one hundred U. S. World War I posters. The focus is on those that would have been widely distributed in North Carolina and would have been influential in helping to shape attitudes and behavior in support of the war and related efforts within the state. The sample chosen reflects (1) a range of governmental and private agency sponsorship of the posters, (2) an array of the artists involved in their design and production, and (3) the diversity of issues that the posters sought to address and influence (from military recruitment and war loans to the conservation of vital resources, medical aid, and refugee relief.)

The one hundred posters included in this site have been divided into broad subject categories that reflect how contemporaries might have thought of them: finance (including Liberty Loans, War Savings and Thrift Stamps), resources (involving both products that were raised or manufactured, or those that were conserved such as food and fuel), military service (from recruitment to camp life to postwar adjustment), propaganda, and war work. This classification provides a preliminary organizational scheme for viewing war posters, but viewers are invited to seek other ways of reading these complex visual documents. Propaganda posters of the First World War served as carriers of both open and covert messages about the war, the sponsoring agency, patriotism, politics, and identity. To attempt to limit these images to one scheme of classification is to underestimate and undervalue their symbolic and communicative role.

Sources: Walton Rawls, Wake up, America!: World War I and the American Poster.(New York: Abbeville Press, 1988) and Libby Chenault, Battlelines: World War I Posters from the Bowman Gray Collection. (Chapel Hill: Rare Book Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1988). For additional published sources and web sites on World War I posters, see For Further Research section.