About this Collection
This collection makes available online approximately 1,900 posters created between 1914 and 1920. Most relate directly to the war, but some German posters date from the post-war period and illustrate events such as the rise of Bolshevism and Communism, the 1919 General Assembly election and various plebiscites. During World War I, the impact of the poster as a means of communication was greater than at any other time during history. The ability of posters to inspire, inform, and persuade combined with vibrant design trends in many of the participating countries to produce thousands of interesting visual works.
The majority of the posters were printed in the United States. Posters from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia are included as well. The posters range in style from anonymous broadsides (predominantly text) to graphically vibrant works by well-known designers. The Library acquired these posters through gift, purchase, and exchange or transfer from other government institutions, and continues to add to the collection.
Background and Scope
During World War I, the impact of the poster as a means of communication was greater than at any other time during history. The ability of posters to inspire, inform, and persuade combined with vibrant design trends in many of the participating countries to produce thousands of interesting visual works. As a valuable historical research resource, the posters provide multiple points of view for understanding this global conflict. As artistic works, the posters range in style from graphically vibrant works by well-known designers to anonymous broadsides (predominantly text).
The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division has extensive holdings of World War I era posters. Available online are approximately 1,900 posters created between 1914 and 1920. Most relate directly to the war, but some German posters date from the post-war period and illustrate events such as the rise of Bolshevism and Communism, the 1919 General Assembly election and various plebiscites.
This collection's international representation is among the strongest in any public institution. (For other major holdings, see the Related Resources page.) The majority of the posters were printed in the United States. Posters from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia are included as well. The Library acquired these posters through gift, purchase, and exchange or transfer from other government institutions, and continues to add to the collection.
World War I and the Role of the Poster
World War I began as a conflict between the Alllies (France, the United Kingdom, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie ignited the war in 1914. Italy joined the Allies in 1915, followed by the United States in 1917. A ceasefire was declared at 11 AM on November 11, 1918.
The poster was a major tool for broad dissemination of information during the war. Countries on both sides of the conflict distributed posters widely to garner support, urge action, and boost morale. During World War II, a larger quantity of posters were printed, but they were no longer the primary source of information. By that time, posters shared their audience with radio and film.
Even with its late entry into the war, the United States produced more posters than any other country. Taken as a whole, the imagery in American posters is more positive than the relatively somber appearance of the German posters.
The posters in the Prints and Photographs Division deal primarily with recruitment, finance, and home front issues. Although produced in different countries, many designs use symbols and messages that share a common purpose. (To explore the full array of topics and symbols supplied as index terms on individual poster descriptions, see the Subject/Format facet.)
Enlistment and Recruitment Posters
Many posters asked men to do their duty and join the military forces. In the early years of the war, Great Britain issued a large number of recruitment posters. Prior to May of 1916, when conscription was introduced, the British army was all-volunteer. Compelling posters were an important tool in encouraging as many mean as possible to enlist. Four rarely seen posters printed in Jamaica and addressed to the men of the Bahamas illustrate the point that this war involved many parts of the world beyond the actual battlegrounds [ view Bahamas recruitment posters].
Women, who weren't being recruited for the military, were also asked to do their part. They could serve through relief organizations such as the YWCA or the Red Cross, or through government jobs. The Women's Land Army was originally a British civilian organization formed to increase agricultural production by having women work the land for farmers who were serving in the military. A Women's Land Army was also assembled in the United States.
Posters for War Bonds and Funds
In countries where conscription was the norm (France, Germany, Austria), recruitment was not such a pressing need, and most posters were aimed at raising money to finance the war. Those who did not enlist were asked to do their part by purchasing bonds or subscribing to war loans. Many finance posters use numismatic imagery to illustrate their point. Coins transform into bullets, crush the enemy, or become shields in the war effort.
Posters Dealing with Food Issues
Food shortages were widespread in Europe during the war. Even before the United States entered the war, American relief organizations were shipping food overseas. On the home front, it was hoped that Americans would adjust their eating habits in such a way as to conserve food that could then be sent abroad. Americans were told to go meatless and wheatless and to eat more corn and fish. Americans were also encouraged to plant victory gardens and to can fruits and vegetables. In Great Britain, eggs were collected for the wounded to aid in their recovery. In France, the Comité National de Prévoyance et d'Economies sponsored a poster competition among schoolchildren to design conservation posters.
Many of the posters rely on symbolism to illustrate their point. Uncle Sam appears quite frequently on posters as a symbol for the United States. On other posters, John Bull and Britannia represent the United Kingdom, while France is personified by Marianne. Posters produced by the Allies often depict Germany as a caricature called a "Hun" who was usually portrayed wearing a pickelhaube (spiked helmet), often covered in blood.
Whistler's mother, from the painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black," is used to represent all motherhood on one Canadian poster. Men are asked to join the Irish Canadian Rangers and "fight for her."
The Poster Artists
(Note: Select the name of the artist to view posters he designed.)
Many well-known artists and illustrators contributed their work to the war effort. Even though the British posters were primarily the work of anonymous printers and lithographers, established artists such as Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), John Hassall (1868-1948), and Gerald Spencer Pryse (1881-1956) designed posters as well.
In Germany, Lucian Bernhard (1883-1972) produced many posters notable for their typography. Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949), who worked for most of his life in Munich, was internationally recognized for his integration of text and image and his brilliant use of color. In addition to his posters for the war effort, he designed many travel and advertising posters. Some of his last works were posters he designed for the Nazi Party during World War II.
Abel Faivre (1867-1945), a well-known cartoonist, and Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), whose cats and Parisian scenes are some of the most recognizable images of the Belle Époque, lent their skills to the war effort and produced posters of considerable emotional depth.
In the U.S., the Committee on Public Information's Division of Pictorial Publicity urged artists to contribute their work in support of the war effort, and hundreds of poster designs were produced. The Division of Pictorial Publicity accepted Joseph Pennell's design for the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive of 1918, for example, which showed New York City in flames. Although the likelihood of enemy attack was small (aircraft of the day could not cross the Atlantic Ocean), the visual argument made for a haunting poster printed in approximately two million copies. The Prints & Photographs Division is fortunate to have works that show different phases of the design process: the original watercolor sketch, a proof for the poster, and the poster that was distributed.
Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952) put the Christy girl into wartime service for the Marines and the Navy, as did other poster creators.
James Montgomery Flagg (1870-1960) designed what has become probably the best-known war recruiting poster: "I Want You for U.S. Army" [view poster]. Said to be a self-portrait, this most recognized of all American posters is also one of the most imitated. Flagg had adapted his design from Alfred Leete's 1914 poster of Lord Kitchener. Posters employing a similar composition were used on both sides of the conflict [ view examples]. The American poster was altered slightly for use in World War II [view poster ]. Since then, this image of Uncle Sam has been modified and parodied countless times [ view examples of parodies].
For a full list of names included as index terms on individual poster descriptions, see the browse lists of creators and other associated names.