Weapons of mass persuasion


August William Hutaf, "Treat 'em Rough," c. 1918. Museum of the City of New York, gift of John W. Campbell.
A World War I poster show at the Museum of the City of New York commemorates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war on Germany

By Val Castronovo

This year marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. The 100th anniversary of Congress’ declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, was marked in the city by a sweep of events, from a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at St. John the Divine to a screening of the silent film “Wings” at the French Institute Alliance Française.

The Museum of the City of New York kicked off its commemoration on April 5 with a powerful show, “Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York,” a tribute to the artists and illustrators who gave visual shape to wartime propaganda.

“The exhibition was originally conceived as being historic, but it turned out to be really quite timely,” Whitney Donhauser, the museum’s director, said at a preview, alluding to themes of nationalism and fears about immigrants. “As we worked through the exhibition, we saw that there was so much in it that actually resonates today.”

Some 65 posters from the museum’s collection of 600 are on view. As co-curator Steven Jaffe described the challenge for those spearheading the propaganda war, “How do we use artists who are very good at persuading people to buy Cream of Wheat? How do we get them to engage in similar psychological persuasion around the issue of the war?”

When Americans entered the fray, the propaganda effort was based in Washington, D.C., but the visual effort was based here. “New York had artists, the ad industry, magazines, illustrators, art societies and art schools,” Jaffe said.

The government’s Department of Pictorial Publicity led the visual campaign from headquarters at the Society of Illustrators, under the direction of its president, Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girl.” Gibson and his team of 300 artists, illustrators and ad execs designed posters, but also banners, ads, buttons and cards for store windows, all in the name of patriotism.

They took their cues from Washington, and by the end of the war “had worked for almost 60 government agencies and war-related organizations, from the Navy to the Red Cross,” the wall text states. They created 2,500 designs in just over 18 months, resulting in the production of 20 million posters — weapons of mass persuasion to instill loyalty and promote sacrifice.

The show boasts one of the most popular images in history, James Montgomery Flagg’s “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY” recruitment poster, with Uncle Sam’s iconic finger jab. Per Jaffe, Flagg, one of the premier commercial illustrators of the time, looked in a mirror and “sketched himself and later superimposed the beard and star-spangled hat.”

Graphic designer Mirko Ilic, a panelist at “Propaganda by Design,” a recent talk at the museum tied to the exhibit, singled out the poster and asked, “Why is this so powerful an image? Because [the finger] looks like a gun.” The government printed four million copies of the poster between 1917 and 1918. It was inspired, in part, by a 1914 World War I design by artist Alfred Leete, with a pointy-fingered Lord Kitchener urging men to enlist in the British army.

“The city itself became a theater of war. It was a spot for parades, and posters covered every square inch,” co-curator Donald Albrecht said at the preview, alluding to the plastering of walls, billboards, subway kiosks and department store windows with these visual forms of persuasion, seen here in vintage black-and-white photos.

One photo stands testament to the mural program set up in front of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, “where people watched murals devoted to our Allies being painted. The murals were then hung along Fifth Avenue, which became the ‘Avenue of the Allies,’” Albrecht said.

The photos contrast with the brilliantly colored posters that line the walls. Graphic designer Seymour Chwast, another speaker at “Propaganda by Design,” noted that posters have become “less and less important” today, but 100 years ago, “there were not a lot of interesting ways to present propaganda.”

His top pick from the show: “LEND!”, the dramatic appeal to buy Liberty Bonds, with one all-caps word on a bright red background. “It’s so direct. It assumes viewers know the message.”

In an age of mass immigration from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, there was great fear on the part of the government about achieving unity in the U.S. to fight the war. The posters demonize Germans, calling them “Huns,” and imagine the Kaiser and his cohorts as devils.

Some of the works reflect nationalist appeals for immigrants — German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans —to get rid of the hyphen and simply designate themselves Americans.

“Are you 100% American?” one Liberty Loan poster asks, begging the questions, “What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be from somewhere else, and are you trustworthy if you are from somewhere else?” according to Jaffe.

“It does feel very timely, like we skipped over a century,” he said.