Selling the War
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 Germany, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The Chairman of the Committee, a journalist 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). 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.”
To facilitate this effort, a letter was sent to artists across 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.”
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 2016).
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 M. Flagg (1877-1960), nearly four million copies were printed during World War I. Trained at art schools in New York and London, Flagg’s works appeared in well-known publications including Life Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post and Harper's Weekly.
As one of America’s leading illustrators, Flagg was asked to aid the war effort and when America entered the war, he adapted his drawing of Uncle Sam and changed the wording to read “I Want You for the US Army.” By war’s end he had created 46 posters in all. The government reissued the I Want You poster during the Second World War due to its popularity.
Created by Ellsworth Young, 1918
Sponsored by the United States Treasury
Emulating British posters with the phrase Remember Belgium, Young wanted Americans to recall the alleged German atrocities in 1914. The solider pictured is a stereotypical German soldier with a thick Kaiser Mustache and spiked helmet. He is pictured dragging a young girl away. Through these images, Young hoped Americans would have sympathy for Belgium and be more likely to support the war effort.
Beat Back the Huns
Created by Frederick Strothmann, 1918
Designed to evoke fear, a German soldier is depicted in black with blood on his hands and a bloody bayonet. By referring to the soldier as a “Hun,” Strothmann linked the soldier to ancient Mongolian warriors who conquered Europe. Overall the poster is designed to make Americans believe the war is necessary because the enemy is evil and one way they can defeat the enemy is to support the war effort by purchasing Liberty bonds.
The Spirit of 18—The World Cry, Food—Keep the Home Garden Going
Created by William McKee, 1918
During World War I food shortages were prevalent. Even prior to the United States’ entry in 1917, relief organizations were shipping food overseas. The poster was to remind Americans to conserve food and plant their own gardens, allowing more food to be shipped to Europe.
Red Cross Christmas Roll Call Dec. 16th-23rd—Where Columbia sets her name, let everyone of you follow her
Created by Edwin H. Blashfield, 1918
Designed as one of a series of six posters, the poster encouraged all Americans to join the Red Cross. Standing in between a scroll and Columbia, the spirit of the Red Cross beckons Americans to sign up. When this poster was produced approximately 19% of the population, about 20 million Americans, were members of the Red Cross.