The following blog post was written by Sara Croft, Print Room Intern. She worked out of the Registration Department which is part of the Collection Support Division of the IMA. Her project was to do a physical inventory of our flatfiles in our Print Room Storage. This included many W.W.I and W.W.II posters.
The current economic situation is an issue that is known to all living generations. Those of us who understand the purpose of being “green” act as if the idea is, or should be, second nature. However, there was a time when people all around the world needed to be taught how to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Some of it was so extreme that it became propaganda, specifically during the first and second world wars.
As an intern in the Print and Drawing department, I have uncovered some of this propaganda in the form of war posters. The IMA houses a variety of French, Russian, British, Canadian, Mexican, and American posters with subject matter pertaining to war bonds, consumption, food rationing, health and safety issues, enlistment, and many other topics.
Many of these posters ended up at the Herron Art Institute during both world wars. They first arrived when the school became a site for men to register for the draft, two months after the first war. It would have been important for young men to be surrounded by war propaganda while they enlisted in the military as to create high morale. Whether the poster constructed an image of a clean shaven, happy soldier with a bright smile or it showed the excitement and joy of being out of the battlefield, those images became iconic to those on the home front who only knew of those images when they thought about their loved ones at war. There was no such thing of live Internet feed or constant updates of information that would have actually shown the tumultuous lives the soldiers were really living.
However, once the posters became a part of Herron’s library in 1918, they served a different purpose in the museum. Between 1913 and 1921 the school’s director, Harold Haven Brown, was also a graphic artist, and he took the opportunity to use the newly acquired war posters to teach poster design, using the posters as examples. Contests were created for students in grade and high schools to extend graphic design, and propaganda, to young people. The museum has examples of these contest posters from American and French children, some as young as thirteen years old. The effort to bring art into schools was admirable, but many of these posters were used in storefronts so that the propaganda could be seen from every angle inside the city. Whether the artistic experience or the penetration of propaganda into the sponge-like brains of children was retained more than the other is disputable.
Many other posters pushed to keep the mouths of Americans shut so that enemy ears would not catch word of our war plans. Some of these posters go so far as to blame a person who spoke of confidential war ideas as a murderer, hence the popular phrase “loose lips sink ships.” Other posters warned you to discard your diary and pay close attention to your surroundings when speaking in public. In our current times these posters seem almost ridiculous, but the government made sure that every American would be scared to death to speak because of the propaganda posters that showed what the results of such talk would be.