In politics lately, it can feel like World War I all over again, with economic analysts drawing parallels between the present and the years leading up to WWI. The same goes for the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), where a new exhibition about visual propaganda from the era has just opened.
Posters and Patriotism: Selling WWI in New York, on view until October 9, includes 60 selections from the museum’s collection of over 670 WWI-related posters. Many of the pieces were originally commissioned by the Committee on Public Information, a government propaganda agency that existed from 1917 to 1919, which had a specific department dedicated to poster design called the Division of Pictorial Publicity.
The images and messages on these posters–which were intended to rally people behind the war effort–grapple with immigration, patriotism, the role of women, and ethnic loyalty.
Curators Donald Albrecht and Steven H. Jaffe selected images for the exhibition based on their artistry and their topicality.
“Some of the posters we display emphasize that immigrants can and should show their patriotic love for America by supporting the war effort, enlisting, and lending money to the government by buying war bonds,” Albrecht and Jaffe tell Co.Design by email. “But other posters on display show how fearful and hateful much of the war propaganda was, targeting Germans–and by extension German-Americans–as potential threats to the country, and demanding ‘100% Americanism’ from the foreign-born and their children. Immigrants were asked to make a choice between their loyalties to their homelands and their American identity, with the clear message that only ‘Americanism’ was acceptable.”
The parallels to today’s issues are uncanny. A 1917 poster by Ethel Franklin Betts Bains features a woman wearing a headscarf with outstretched palms; it’s asking people to contribute to a $30,000,000 relief fund for Armenia, Greece, Syria, and Persia. A 1915 poster by Fred Spear called Enlist depicts a drowning woman holding her baby–a nod to the lives lost after a German submarine sank the Lusitania, a British ocean liner.
During WWI, 20 million copies of some 3,500 different posters flooded the United States and were displayed on billboards, the sides of buildings, walls, and pretty much any flat surface, the curators say.
While these types of posters don’t exist today, using images and messaging to curry favor for war is still very much alive. You just need to know how to scout for it. To Albrecht and Jaffe, today’s familiar PSAs for armed services–which appear in magazines, on billboards, on television, as trailers in movie theaters, and on the internet and social media–are the most salient examples.
“They purvey a message that is similar to that of many of the World War I posters: military service is patriotic, but is also an adventure, a thrill, and a way to prove oneself and gain skills and valuable experiences,” Albrecht and Jaffe tell Co.Design. “Usually the actual experience of being in battle is downplayed, or even invisible. The invisibility of combat, injury, and death was also true of some–but not all–of the World War I posters, as our exhibition shows. Of course the modern-day propaganda is racially diverse and includes women in combat and combat-support roles; propaganda during World War I was strictly racially segregated, and women were relegated to roles as medical aides, relief workers, drivers, and telephone operators in agencies such as the YWCA, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Motor Corps of America.”
Spy examples from the exhibition in the slide show above and visit mcny.org for more information.