Americans, Do Your Bit: World War I in Posters
June 3, 2017 through August 2018
A new exhibition, “Americans, Do Your Bit: World War I in Posters” opens at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library on June 3, 2017. It tells the story of Americans on the home front during World War I through posters and other objects such as ID tags, uniforms, and souvenirs. Archival materials featured include post cards and personal letters. More than 70 items drawn from the Museum & Library collection will be on view. The exhibition is planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into the WWI. It will be on view through June, 2018.
Posters on the Home Front
In April, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Americans were divided in their support of joining the conflict. To help bring citizens together, the government turned to a group of volunteer artists. These men and women deployed their skills to help sell the government’s messages in poster form. During, and after America’s twenty-month participation in World War I, more than twenty million posters were printed to encourage citizens to donate money, conserve food, and support war-related charitable efforts. Together the volunteer artists created over 700 poster designs.
Americans on the home front were the artists’ main audience for World War I posters. They hung in libraries, railway stations, factories, clubs, and schools—citizens could not escape their pressing and persuasive messages. Some artists painted a sunny, positive picture of participating in war-related efforts as seen in the poster Over the Top, 1918, by Sidney Riesenberg (1885-1962). Other posters like Henry Raleigh’s (1880-1944), Remember Belgium, 1918, by Ellsworth Young (1866-1952), played to viewers’ fears and anxieties to inspire action.
Food is Ammunition
After the United States entered World War I, the government encouraged citizens to use food wisely and to produce food at home. To help achieve their aims, the U. S. Food Administration and National War Garden Commission printed thousands of eye-catching posters such as Food Is Ammunition, 1917-1919, by John E. Sheridan (1880-1948). Millions of Americans adhered to government guidelines, signing pledges to conserve food and planting “War Gardens.” Americans saved enough food to keep soldiers fed and to send millions of tons of food to Europe.
Hold Up Your End! Humanitarian Organizations
Many humanitarian groups—the Red Cross, YMCA, the YWCA, and the Salvation Army were among the largest—used posters to help raise funds, recruit volunteers and publicize their work helping soldiers and civilians. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army provided servicemen everything from hot food to French lessons. Organizations such as the Knights of Columbus offered soldiers stationery so they could keep in touch with their families as seen in the photograph on view, Writing Home to Mother at a K of C Building, 1917. A New England Masonic lodge supplied postcards at its lodge room and directed that, “each brother attending a meeting is requested then and there to write a card to a brother in service.”
Weapons for Liberty: Government Bonds
To help finance the war, the U. S. Treasury sold savings bonds, called Liberty Loans. The advertising campaigns to support this effort combined high emotion and the call to patriotism as seen in the poster Clear the Way, 1918, by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952). With an army of volunteers and effective advertising techniques, the U.S. government was able to raise the funds it needed. In all, Americans bought over twenty billion dollars’ worth of Liberty bonds.
Americans All!: Return and Remembrance
When soldiers returned home after the combat ended in 1918, they faced many challenges. Organizations like the YMCA and the Red Cross set up services to help soldiers with financial, health, and employment issues. Many sought to honor the men who had served and the 125,500 who had died. Masonic lodges put together honor nights for servicemen. Many wished to create, as noted by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, “an enduring record of the valiant service rendered.” These took different forms including memorial books and honor rolls listing the names of men who served, examples of which are on view.
The millions of posters created during World War I serve as a reminder of Americans’ shared effort and sacrifice throughout and after the war.