War on the Walls

As an undergraduate, I once spent a semester at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where I worked on a project concerning George Creel and the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda ministry charged with “selling” US participation in World War I. Creel, a journalist and student of marketing, employed a modern, multi-media approach to his task. The CPI targeted films, songs, speeches (the “four-minute men” lectured between film reels), pamphlets, stories, and other materials at niche audiences and promoted an image of the US soldier as a wholesome warrior (this despite significant venereal disease among the troops) who needed to halt the hun before they shed blood on American soil. They encouraged renaming dachshunds “liberty hounds” and attempted to replace ethnic allegiances with 100% Americanism. For me, though, posters constituted the most fascinating aspect of the campaign.

Walton Rawls, author of the impressive Wake Up, America!, estimates that artists produced over 2500 posters in the year and a half of American involvement in the war. Some major artists—including Charles Dana Gibson, N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Chandler Christy—created posters designed to raise recruits, sell liberty bonds, encourage conservation, and denigrate the enemy. While readers will recognize some of these, such as James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You,” with its iconic Uncle Sam, many remain deep in the archive. Here are a few that capture the flavor of the propaganda.

H.R. Hopps’s famous poster (c.a. 1917) eschews subtlety in favor of blunt dehumanization. A wild-eyed, salivating ape clutches a bloody club in one paw and a partially naked maiden in the other. The club’s reference to “kultur” reflects a message expanded on in some of the CPI’s pamphlets (written by academicians). Extrapolating from some of Nietzsche’s writings, these pamphlets suggested that Germany would spread its ideology throughout the world by force. Note the ape’s foot stepping on the word “America.”

Nice kitty! August Hastaf’s 1918 poster reflects the effort to tailor recruiting strategies to all branches of the armed services. The Tank Corps used “Black Tom” as its mascot.

Howard Chandler Christy’s poster (1918) exploits gender insecurities and a wind-swept beauty to taunt young men into enlisting.

Many posters, such as this one by Cushman Parker (1918), focused on how the home front could aid the troops. Clean plate club!

No war is complete without books (John E. Sheridan [1918]).

Fortunino Matania (1917) shows another side of the war.

Like many posters, Flagg’s creation employed Dame Columbia. Flagg also recasts gardening into a patriotic activity.

Like many associated with the CPI, Ernest Fuhr (1919) explains America’s military success in terms of smiling, VD-free warriors. The eagle in full span encourages the soldier to keep that bayonet nice and clean.

R.H. Porteus (1917) helped market the Liberty Loan via a maternal image surrounded by men in peril. The woman’s bun is almost halo-like, and her open arms and soft smile equate the government bonds with the warmth of the hearth.

Observe that most of the posters above use minimal text, a principle drawn from modern marketing. Many less successful artists, however, juxtaposed their images with relatively verbose text. Here’s an example:


~ by Moldorf on May 22, 2010.

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