Written by Kelly Morgan
In this final installment of the propaganda posters series, we’ll be examining the mobilization of the home front through Liberty loan drives and through manufacturing by appealing to the labor force, immigrant groups, and citizens unable to serve in the military or Red Cross. All posters discussed in this post are part of the collections of the New-York Historical Society.
With the goal of raising money for the war effort, artists illustrated posters for Liberty loan drives. Over the course of American involvement in the war, from April 1917 to November 1918, four Liberty loan drives galvanized Americans, appealing to those who stayed at home to support the war financially. German atrocities remained a dominant theme of World War I posters, both for enlistment in the Armed Forces and as a rallying cry to financially support the American cause. Ellsworth Young’s Remember Belgium (ca. 1918) depicts the silhouettes of a German soldier and a young girl in front of a backdrop of flames. Referencing the German occupation of Belgium—contemporarily referred to as the Rape of Belgium—thousands of civilians perished during deportation, imprisonment, and execution, with many victims suffering from mutilation at the hands of their conquerors. While initially thought to be contrived for British propaganda, recent historians uncovered that many of these violent accounts were, in fact, true, although there were several fabrications as well. Young’s poster, with its simplicity and clear reference to the Rape of Belgium, not only calls on Americans to support the war to fight German atrocity but implicitly reiterates the fear that the same treatment could befall America without support from its citizens.
In F. Strothman’s Beat Back the Hun with Liberty Bonds (1917), a grotesque German soldier peers at the viewer over a savaged landscape, the hands and weapons bloodied by the victims of his violence. Without financial support, the German soldier’s next target is American soil. Joseph Pennell’s That Liberty Shall Not Perish (1918) portrays New York City completely ravaged by the war, a decapitated Statue of Liberty’s head floating in the harbor. Liberty loan posters often conveyed fearful images of wartime destruction occurring on American soil.
Many Liberty loan posters emphasized the need to support the war in whatever way possible. If one cannot physically fight on the front lines, then buy war bonds that would, in turn, assist the soldiers sacrificing their lives. In Howard Chandler Christy’s Fight or Buy Bonds, Third Liberty Loan (1917), an allegorical Lady Liberty holds an American flag high above her head while soldiers are charging forward holding a flag of their own. The message is clear: If you cannot enlist, that does not prevent your participation. Christy girls dominated his posters, with a new iteration Clear the Way!! Buy Bonds, Fourth Liberty Loan (1918) highlighting a blonde Lady Liberty wrapped in the American flag. Below her, shirtless soldiers are loading a large gun at an unseen enemy. While the Christy girls, sexualized and feminine, call on Americans to perform their responsibility by financially supporting the war effort, the male soldiers are responsible for protecting America, Lady Liberty, and the home front through their sacrifice on the front lines.
Christy’s posters, in essence, divided American citizenship into two factions: those who can fight and those who stayed at home. Other propaganda posters sought to overcome this division by advocating a unified front between industry and the armed forces. In James Montgomery Flagg’s Together We Win (ca. 1917) a laborer carrying a hammer is walking side by side with a sailor and a soldier, conveying the need for all Americans, soldiers or not, to participate and engage with the war effort. J. E. Sheridan’s Rivets Are Bayonets – Drive Them Home! (1917) depicts a factory worker in the foreground, a rivet in his hand, with a silhouette of an American soldier on the front lines carrying a bayonet. The juxtaposition of factory worker and soldier conveys the importance of the war effort both on the front lines and on the home front. The soldier cannot succeed without the labor of the factory worker.
During an era in which immigration into American cities bolstered the population and many people insisted on their assimilation to the American way of life, the Liberty loan posters reached out specifically to distinct immigrant groups. The Statue of Liberty stood as a symbol for all incoming immigrant groups by World War I, and in Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty (1917), we see the huddled masses just arrived onto the shores of New York, the Statue of Liberty standing tall in the background. The United States supplied these immigrants with liberty, and now it was their duty to help preserve it.
After the war ended, the Liberty loan drives changed nominally to the Victory Loan drives, with an emphasis on raising money in order to bring the troops back home. Howard Chandler Christy’s Americans All! (1918) presented allegorical Liberty honoring a list of ethnic names in order to highlight the diverse backgrounds of soldiers who fought on behalf of the United States. From O’Brien and Kowalski to Gonzales and Pappandrikopolous, Christy’s acknowledgement of ethnic diversity unified the disparate immigrant groups to create one, de-hyphenated American citizenry by reminding everyone that all of these groups sacrificed on behalf of the American cause.
Breaking down the divisions between immigrant and native, laborer and soldier was a necessary prerequisite in rallying the support of all Americans. By acknowledging the labor as integral to the success of the soldier, the propaganda posters highlighted the patriotic duty of all citizens. Additionally, financially supporting the war was just as necessary as physically fighting on the front lines, and all members of the American public—from women and laborers to newly arrived immigrants—could support the war effort in their own way. Propaganda posters utilized this unifying rhetoric both by including and acknowledging disparate groups’ sacrifices and by presenting the German enemy as a distinct “other”—unifying all Americans against the violence and destruction embodied by the vicious Hun. By galvanizing support from all factions of society, socioeconomic status, and ethnic diversity, propaganda posters sought to unify all Americans with one common goal: to achieve victory “over there.”
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.