Art Markets: World War I poster art rooted in propaganda

When the empires of Europe went to war in August of 1914, almost everyone involved dreamed of a swift campaign of glory for their side, and of returning home covered in victory laurels by Christmas.

World War I turned instead into a long, bloody stalemate, a conflict that called on every citizen in the combatant nations to play their part. Artists eagerly flocked to the colors in the war’s opening weeks. In France, Impressionist painters created modern camouflage. In every country, artists turned their brushes toward propaganda, designing posters to boost civilian morale, encourage military enlistment and demonize the enemy. In those years, propaganda was actually a positive word, with the implication of informing people of the facts, albeit from a particular perspective. Only with the rise of the Nazis in World War II did the word propaganda become a negative, a synonym for falsehood.

After the U.S. belatedly entered the war in April of 1917, American artists already had successful models of propaganda from their British ally. One of the most influential posters ever produced appeared in the U.K. during the early weeks of the war. Designed by Alfred Leete, an illustrator for the satirical magazine Punch, the army recruiting poster featured the stern face of Lord Kitchener, the British war hero-turned-war-minister, pointing at the viewer and declaring with utter certainty, “Your Country Needs You.”

American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) used Lord Kitchener as inspiration for his famous recruiting poster, “I Want You for U.S. Army.” Flagg worked for many popular magazines in the early 20th century and would contribute 46 posters to the war effort. His most recognizable and influential was his Kitchener-derived poster, featuring a white-haired, serious Uncle Sam with pointed finger. Flagg’s creation first appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 6, 1916, under the title “What Are You Doing For Preparedness?” More than 4 million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918 as the United States entered the war and began sending troops overseas.

America’s avuncular symbol became an icon around the world even today. Uncle Sam was already popular as the nation’s personification during the Civil War, but his image didn’t become complete until Flagg. His Uncle Sam poster is collectible and accessible. Because of its overwhelming appeal, the image was later adapted for America’s World War II poster campaign. Flagg’s 1917 Army poster sold at William Doyle (New York) in October 2009 for $1,900 (hammer).

All branches of the military were recruiting for enlistment. Flagg’s “The Navy Needs You” (1918) and “Be A U.S. Marine” (1918) competed for the doughboy’s place in history. His navy poster, showing a sailor tapping the shoulder of a civilian, dressed in suit and tie, holding a newspaper, imploring: “Don’t Read American History—Make It”, with the spirit of Columbia hovering above. Flagg makes powerful use of guilt and the promise of a place in history to urge men to join. “Be A Marine” shows a uniformed marine with clenched fist, superimposed on Old Glory with his sidearm raised for action. Swann Galleries (New York) sold both posters in their August 2008 sale for $1,400 (hammer) and $750 (hammer), respectively.

The poster propaganda campaign was aimed at a variety of programs including the United War Campaign, the sale of war bonds and the Red Cross. The American Red Cross, founded in 1881, conducted domestic and overseas disaster relief aid and worked beside the U.S. military during the Spanish-American War. With the outbreak of World War I, the organization experienced enormous growth with membership jumping from 17,000 nationally to more than 20 million adult members. The Red Cross poster campaign called upon America to give and the public responded, contributing $400 million in funds and materials to support its programs, including those for American and Allied forces and civilian refugees.

Magazine illustrator Harrison Fisher (1875-1934), whose stylized images of the “Fisher Girl” and the “American Girl” became models of feminine beauty in the early 20th century, created a popular poster called “I Summon You In Comradeship in the Red Cross.” The title was taken from a quote by President Woodrow Wilson; the image shows a young girl clutching an American flag, with the Red Cross and U.S. Capitol in the background. The 30- by 40-inch lithograph from the collection of the American Red Cross sold at Heritage Auction’s February sale for $310 (including buyer’s premium).

The Liberty Bond poster appealed to men and women with its message to finance the war effort through bonds. An aggressive message, “Come On” (1918), designed by Walter Whitehead (1874-1934), graphically portrayed a wounded Allied soldier standing over a dead German soldier with bayonet ready, imploring the viewer to buy more Liberty Bonds. The fear-based message was designed to keep revenue coming in for the war effort. Whitehead, born in Chicago, studied under Howard Pyle and produced illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post as well as commercial products.

Many government agencies called on the American public to pitch in for the war effort. To spur the production of coal, the U.S. Fuel Administration commissioned Whitehead’s 1918 “Mine More Coal.” With its call to “Stand By the Boys in the Trenches,” the image depicts a soldier and a coal miner, standing side-by-side atop pile of coal and the thorny barbed-wired ground zero of the trench, the miner with an axe and the soldier with bayonet, both at the ready. The message was a bold reminder that citizen and soldier had a role to play in winning the war. The poster was included in Swann’s 2008 sale, fetching $425 (hammer).

Thousands of different posters produced by hundreds of artists and illustrators bombarded America with its messages of buy, enlist and win. Their talent captured the spirit of America and created a legacy for collectors today. ?

Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at

Read more Art Market articles by Mary Manion.

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