Written by Kelly Morgan
Before America’s entry into World War I in 1917, citizens significantly debated whether the United States should remain neutral. Artists contributed to this national conversation through their artwork. Consequently, the government depended on these artists in a variety of ways. From garnering support from the American public to ascertaining information from behind enemy lines, American artists—and their visions—informed and influenced American culture and military strategy during the war and initiated a new wave of modern art in the aftermath of the war. In addition to the artwork on display in our new exhibition World War I Beyond the Trenches, we’re showcasing a series of more than 30 propaganda posters culled from our collections. But with more than 500 in our collection, how did we narrow it down to under 50? This three-part blog series examines the visual themes of propaganda posters that informed our selection for display.
In order to galvanize American support for World War I, the government developed the Committee on Public Information, an organization dedicated to the dissemination of propaganda and convincing the American public that entry into the war, rather than neutrality, was absolutely necessary.
Assembled by Woodrow Wilson and led by George Creel, the CPI solicited artists to illustrate posters that rallied Americans around the cause. These propaganda posters utilized the rhetoric of patriotism to garner public support for a military offensive, including enlistment into the Armed Forces and appeals for food conservation. The New-York Historical Society’s Library collection is a repository for hundreds of World War I-era posters, many of which were preserved and stored in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Military enlistment posters drew on wartime events in order to garner support and recruit soldiers. The Navy frequently incorporated images of the R.M.S. Lusitania, a passenger ship sunk by German U-boats in 1915 off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers, 128 of whom were Americans. Though many posters incorporated this visual language and it was frequently cited as a precipitating factor in American involvement and entry into the war, the sinking of the Lusitania occurred a full two years prior to Wilson’s declaration of war. Nevertheless, the powerful imagery of women and children dying at the hands of the Germans, as seen in W.A. Rogers’ When You Fire Remember This (1917), resonated deeply with the American public.
Enlistment posters emphasized different branches of the military, including the Marine Corps, the Navy, and branches that technology only recently incorporated, such as the Army Air Service, the precursor to the Air Force.
The most iconic image proliferated during the war is James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want YOU for U.S. Army – Nearest Recruiting Station (1917). Uncle Sam’s finger is directed at each individual American citizen, expecting their enlistment for the United States Army. With its proliferation as an enlistment poster again in World War II and its incorporation into satire throughout the 20th-century, this image continued to reverberate strongly in American cultural memory.
Laura Brey’s Enlist, On Which Side of the Window Are You? (1917) conveys a distinct class dynamic between those who chose to enlist and those who elected to remain at home. The well-dressed man behind the window watches as his fellow Americans are marching to serve, evoking shame and melancholy at not joining the war effort. It’s clear that the man in this poster is contemplating joining the throngs of marching soldiers on the other side of the window.
Technological innovations initiated a new wave of military branches, with the inauguration of the Tank Corps and the Army Air Service. August William Hutaf’s Treat ‘Em Rough! Join the Tanks (1918) incorporates vivid greens and oranges in the backdrop of a startled cat, clearly responsive to the modernist language permeating art in Europe in the early 20th century.
This reaction and use of a modern color scheme coordinates strongly with the first “modern war.” Join the Army Air Service, Be an American Eagle (1917) pits German vulture against American eagle in an airborne showdown, while imploring the American citizenry to enlist and support the nascent Army Air Service. World War I was the first war to utilize the airplane in battle; the opportunity to participate with this new technology resonated strongly with enlisting soldiers.
While the Tank Corps offered technological innovation and the army implored the average American male citizen to enlist rather than be drafted, the Navy often incorporated a message of adventure and excitement. Flagg’s The Navy Needs You! (1917) appeals to its audience to “make” American history instead of reading it. Liberty holds the American flag over the sailor approaching a businessman reading a newspaper, imploring him to participate in the action rather than simply reading about it. Like many other Navy posters, this image incorporates a landscape that is more tropical, suggesting the ability for the sailor to see the world and experience adventure while serving the country.
While atrocities were often depicted as a primary reason to enlist in the Armed Forces, the Marine Corps advertised their own brutality when fighting against German forces. In the infamous Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the deadliest battles of the war, German soldiers reportedly referred to the onslaught of United States Marines as “Devil Dogs” (Teufel Hunden in German) due to the ferocity with which they fought.
In this poster by an unidentified artist, the Marine Corps proudly appropriated this nickname, which is still used today. In a similar vein, James Montgomery Flagg’s Tell That to the Marines! (ca. 1918) conveys the Marine Corps’ intolerance of the atrocities occurring in Europe. Throwing the newspaper to the ground, the man has ripped off his tie, trading in his business attire to join the ranks of the United States Marine Corps, solidifying the Corps as a distinct branch. As the Marine Corps depended on enlistments and accepted no draftees, they designated themselves as distinct among the other branches of the military through this elite rhetoric of their performance on the front line.
When curating and selecting posters for this portion of the exhibition, significant care was made to represent all branches of the Armed Forces and emphasize the nuances of each respective branch. The adventurous sailor, the rugged soldier, the technologically savvy tank operator, and the steadfast Marine all participated on the front lines, and these images serve as reminders of the sacrifices all soldiers made in World War I and beyond.
- Borkan, Gary. World War I Posters. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2002
- James, Pearl. The New Death: American Modernism and World War I. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
- James, Pearl, ed. Picturing This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
- Kingsbury, Celia Malone. For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
- Lubin, David. Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.