Domestic Propaganda in World War 1

With America’s entry into World War I, President Wilson quickly realized the government would need to convince the American people of the validity of the war. Shortly after declaring war on the German Imperial Government, Wilson initiated the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The Chairman of the Committee, a journalist and editor named George Creel, created 21 separate divisions within the CPI devoted to domestic propaganda. The most successful of these divisions was the Division of Pictorial Publicity (DPP) created in 1917. Creel firmly believed that “the poster must play a great role in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read; people might choose not to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.”[1]

To facilitate this effort, a letter was sent to every artist in the country asking for their help producing images for the war:

“This national committee [DPP] has been organized with the intention of giving the United States Government the best work that can be produced by artists throughout the country, to be used for posters, etc., and we are, therefore, desirous of enlisting the cooperation of every artist in the country.

If you have any ideas that can be used for this purpose, please send them, if only in rough preliminary form, to the above address. The different Governmental departments are constantly requesting posters, sketches, or cartoons; and we would like to have on hand ideas for their immediate needs…The present time offers the artists of the country a glorious opportunity such as they never had before and probably never will have again. There is to be a great campaign of pictorial publicity to emphasize the needs of our government. What more important or patriotic service could any man do than create a war poster so striking, so beautiful, or so impressive that it drives its message home to every eye, and makes an indelible impression on the millions of people who will see it. May we have your cooperation in this service and receive from you, not only now, but from time to time, such sketches as you may conceive that will help and inspire patriotism in our country?”[2]

Government departments would contact the CPI when they needed artwork, and the DPP would produce the art at no cost because most of the artists were working for free. By the end of the war the DPP had produced over 1400 designs created by 318 artists at a cost of just over $13,000 ($207,000 in 2014).[3]

The Most Famous Poster in the World

The iconic I Want You poster featuring Uncle Sam originally appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly for the July 6, 1916 issue with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” Designed by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), nearly four million copies were printed between during World War I.

Trained at art schools in New York and London, Flagg’s works appeared in well-known publications of the day including Life Magazine, McClure's MagazineCollier's WeeklyLadies' Home JournalCosmopolitanSaturday Evening Post and Harper's Weekly. As one of America’s leading illustrators, Flagg was contacted by the Government and asked to aid the war effort with his illustrations. He adapted his 1916 drawing of Uncle Sam; changing the wording to read I Want You for US Army. By the end of the war Flagg designed 46 posters. Due to its popularity during World War I, the government reissued the I Want You poster during the Second World War.

Uncle Sam.jpg

 

 

[1] Eric Van Schaack, “The Division of Pictorial Publicity in World War I,” Design Issues 22, no. 1 (2006): 33, accessed December 8, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/25224029?uid=2134&uid=374502461&uid=3739936&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=374502451&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21105408988243

[2] Ibid, 39

[3] Ibid, 45

Bibliography

Simkin, John. “James Montgomery Flagg.” Spartacus Educational. 2014 accessed December 8, 2014, http://spartacus-educational.com/ARTflagg.htm