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posted: 5/19/2014 1:18 PM

Museum poster exhibit highlights propaganda of World War I

Cantigny's First Division Museum poster exhibit highlights propaganda of World War I

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  • "WE NEED YOU! Propaganda of the Great War" exhibit, designed by Jaron Keener, includes 37 posters from the First Division Museum's collection of more than 100.

       "WE NEED YOU! Propaganda of the Great War" exhibit, designed by Jaron Keener, includes 37 posters from the First Division Museum's collection of more than 100.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Exhibit designer Jaron Keener levels framed posters from First Division Museum's World War I collection.

       Exhibit designer Jaron Keener levels framed posters from First Division Museum's World War I collection.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • "WE NEED YOU! Propaganda of the Great War" exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in the summer of 2014. It runs through Nov. 2.

       "WE NEED YOU! Propaganda of the Great War" exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in the summer of 2014. It runs through Nov. 2.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Four million copies of James Montgomery Flagg's famous "Uncle Sam" poster were produced during World War I and it was used again in World War II. Flagg said he used himself as the model for Uncle Sam to save the cost of paying a model.

       Four million copies of James Montgomery Flagg's famous "Uncle Sam" poster were produced during World War I and it was used again in World War II. Flagg said he used himself as the model for Uncle Sam to save the cost of paying a model.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Service organizations such as the American Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA and American Library Association played an active role in the war effort.

       Service organizations such as the American Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA and American Library Association played an active role in the war effort.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

A stern-faced, finger-pointing Uncle Sam declares "I want YOU for the U.S. Army" in the iconic recruitment poster drawn by famed artist James Montgomery Flagg.

The famous illustration greets visitors at the entrance of the First Division Museum's new exhibit, "WE NEED YOU! Propaganda of The Great War."

But while Flagg's Uncle Sam may be the most recognizable poster that came out of World War I, it was by no means the only one.

The United States printed 20 million posters during the war urging Americans to do everything from enlist in the Army and buy war bonds to join the Red Cross and knit socks for soldiers. The messages were direct and effective.

"It was interesting seeing all the ways the government tried to reach out," said Teri Bianchi, exhibits manager at the museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. "The posters definitely did what they were meant to do."

The exhibit, running through Nov. 2, showcases 37 of the more than 100 posters in the museum's collection, and includes a recruitment poster from Great Britain and war bond posters from France and Germany. The display coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in summer 1914.

The government's ramped up effort to win public support for the war came after it initially tried to stay out of the world-encompassing conflict. Sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in July 1914, the spreading conflict soon pitted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey against the Allies that included Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan -- but not the United States until 1917.

In fact, President Woodrow Wilson narrowly won re-election in 1916 on the platform "he kept us out of war."

But German attacks on shipping helped change American sentiment. When the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, 128 Americans died. Germany agreed to refrain from attacks on passenger ships, but resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917.

In the infamous Zimmermann telegraph that was intercepted, Germany also tried to draw Mexico into war against the U.S. by promising to help our southern neighbor regain the lands of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Arguing that the United States needed to help make the world safe for democracy, Wilson went before Congress in April 1917 and successfully obtained a declaration of war. The Committee on Public Information was put in charge of helping to win support for the war. Deciding that posters would play a key role in that effort, the committee recruited artists to work with organizations that needed posters.

"None of the artists got paid. They volunteered their time," Bianchi said.

The public responded to the messages. At the beginning of the United States' entry into the war, it had 200,000 men in uniform. By the war's end in 1918, the number had risen to 4 million. War bonds bought by citizens paid for $24 million of the $33 million the war effort cost the U.S., Bianchi said.

"The war bonds raised two-thirds of the cost of the war," she said.

Jaron Keener, the exhibit designer, said visitors don't need to have a background in miliary history to appreciate the posters' impact.

"They were for people on the homefront," he said. "We are the target audience."

Divided in five sections, the exhibit includes anti-German ("Halt the Hun!") posters; military recruitment; financing the war by the sale of war bonds; encouraging support for the war through organizations such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross; and involving women in the war effort.

The messages were by no means subtle. One recruitment poster pictures a father with his young son and daughter and says, "Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?" Another poster appeals to George Washington and patriotism: "Do as our Forefathers did in 1776/ Enlist."

Yet other posters were aimed specifically at recruiting black American men and Polish-Americans into the war effort.

Pitches to join support organizations were no less direct. One showing a Red Cross nurse reads, "If I Fail He Dies/ Work for the Red Cross."

Women didn't just work as nurses. They also operated switchboards connecting phone lines to the front, took the place of men in heavy industry and volunteered with an assortment of service organizations.

"Our Boys Need Sox/Knit your bit," admonishes one Red Cross poster.

Keener said the exhibit may make visitors more aware of how information is presented and the messages they are receiving.

"Propaganda today is a little more subtle," he said.

Susan A. Brewer, an expert on the subject of propaganda, will speak at 7:30 p.m. June 4 at Cantigny's First Division Museum, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton. The lecture and the exhibit are free. For more information, contact www.firstdivisionmuseum.org or (630) 260-8185.

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