graphic design

What WWI Posters Say About Early 20th Century War Marketing

Side by side posters of James Montgomery Flagg's poster "I Want You For U.S. Army" (left) and Alfred Leete's "Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You To Join Your Country's Army. God Save The King" (right)

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the start of World War I.  A good way of judging a society is the way it communicated it values and instincts during a particular time.  Long before modern communication tools like the Internet and television, graphic designers were given the important task of creating propaganda posters to inspire nations and boost morale during the Great War with aesthetically pleasing imagery.

Just like terrorists, the military needs to have a marketing department too.

On 13 April 1917 – seven days after the United States declared war on Germany – President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information.  In order to reach out to Americans who didn’t read newspapers, go to the movie theater or attend community meetings, the Division of Pictorial Publicity was created to design visual communications.  This comprised of a group of artists and designers who would meet once a week in New York City to discuss poster requests from the government.

The most well known poster from that period was James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam “We Want You For U.S. Army” (Above).  Few people know that Flagg’s poster is actually an imitation of British graphic artist Alfred Leete’s “Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You” poster.

Developed by the Office of Public Sector Information (or His Majesty’s Stationery Office at the time), British poster designers had a way of using images and words to bring the message home, inciting a sense of guilt for not doing your part in the war effort, as evidence in the next two posters.

Side by side posters of "Daddy, what did you do during the Great War?" and "It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb"

Flagg also designed posters that appealed to America’s worst fear of the war coming stateside, like these poster of Columbia (a personification of America) sleeping while flames are raging behind her and encouraging recruitment.

Side by side posters of "Wake Up America" and "Columbia Calls"

Posters encouraged everyone to fulfil their duty in the Great War, and not just men fighting on the battlefield, but also women. Before the war, most women were housewives. But as men departed to fight on the Front, some women went with them as military nurses. In the United States, women also started doing the jobs men would do, such as machine operators and railroad conductors. There was also a greater demand in the U.S. government for more stenographers, typists and clerks.

While women were doing the work of men, this didn’t mean they received the same rights. Some employers were hostile to women working and didn’t pay them a fair wage or allowed them to unionize. Many employers didn’t provide childcare or even proper bathrooms for women. However, World War I was a major turning point for women, as this was the first time women showed that they could be more than just housewives and, thus, kickstarting the modern women’s rights movement.

Side by side posters of "Do the job he left behind" and "For every fighter a woman worker"

The Committee on Public Information also put out posters encouraging recruitment from African-Americans. Approximately 400,000 African-Americans served in the war, and about 42,000 actually saw action in the European theatre. The posters evoked a sense of heroism, self sacrifice and even the memory of Abraham Lincoln to frame the war effort as a struggle for freedom. Nonetheless, U.S. military units were still heavily segregated and black men still faced the same level of discrimination when they came home after the war.

Side by side WW1 posters of African American soliders

These are some other great posters from the time, encouraging some kind of involvement, whether it was telling men who weren’t enlisted that their labor was just as important, rationing or buying war bonds. World War I propaganda will go down in history as one of the most influential war marketing campaigns.

Posters of "Food Don't Waste It" and "Together We Can"

Posters saying "Little Americans Do Your Part" and "Come On Join Now"

Posters of "Help Them" and "Books Wanted"

Posters of "The Greatest Mother" and "Rivets are Bayonets"

Check out more World War I propaganda posters here.

Racism, Colonialism and the Communist Vision

Viktor Koretsky, "Africa Fights, Africa Will Win" 1968

Viktor Koretsky, “Africa Fights, Africa Will Win” 1968

For many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us.  They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and stake in society.  Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.

–  Nelson Mandela

Over the last few months the relationship between the United States and Russia has grown tense.  Between the ongoing NSA/Ed Snowden saga, strongly enforced anti-gay and anti civil liberties laws by President Vladimir Putin, and concerns about terrorism at the Sochi Winter Olympics, one would get the impression that the Cold War didn’t really end in 1991.

Of course we all know the tension between the two countries goes back to the original start of the Cold War in 1947.  At that same time the Non-Aligned Movement in the colonial world and the American civil rights movement were both in their infancy.  The Soviet Union was looking for a way to communicate the message that the racial struggles of people of color worldwide were connected with the evils of capitalism and imperialism.  This would become one of the most enduring propaganda projects in Soviet history.

Ukrainian graphic designer Viktor Koretsky (1909–1998) created passionate political posters during this era that communicated the idea that communism and multiracial cooperation can work together against the global threat of greed and aggression.

Take for instance the poster above.  It signifies a black man “breaking” the chain, denoting the colonial struggles in Africa, as well as battling against Jim Crow in the United States.  Also, the man is looking towards his left, symbolizing a new direction towards communism.

Here are some of Koretsky’s most memorable posters, which also use symbols of breaking away from a struggle.

Viktor Koretsky, "You will not strangle the freedom of the Arab peoples" 1958

Viktor Koretsky, “You will not strangle the freedom of the Arab peoples” 1958

The struggle Koretsky is referring to here is the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal and started building stronger ties with the Soviet Union and China.  The poster shows an Arab man trying to keep the hands of Britain and America from joining together (and taking back control of the Suez Canal).  The handcuffs symbolizing both American dollars and British pounds and the man looking sternly at the American hand.  This was a nod to Nasserism and Pan-Arabism.

Viktor Koretsky, "A Solid Peace for the World" 1965

Viktor Koretsky, “A Solid Peace for the World” 1965

This poster symbolizes a multiracial coalition looking right, or looking towards the West.  The Soviets wanted to stressed that all men were equal and to fight the “struggle” against capitalism together.  (The Soviets were way ahead of “United Colors” of Benetton!)

Viktor Koretsky and Evgeny Abezgus , "Equality" 1963

Viktor Koretsky and Evgeny Abezgus , “Equality” 1963

This is another symbol of racial equality and mutual respect in fighting against capitalism together.

Viktor Koretsky, "American Policy (Domestic/Foreign)" 1970

Viktor Koretsky, “American Policy (Domestic/Foreign)” 1970

Aggression and race rears its ugly head in this poster, demonstrating the communist vision of both domestic and foreign policy in the United States.  On the left a black man is beaten by the police during a civil rights protest.  On the right,  American soldiers looking over a dead body presumably during the Vietnam War.

Viktor Koretsky, "Justice American Style" 1970s

Viktor Koretsky, “Justice American Style” 1960

Here is another symbol of racial struggle, this time a black man about to be lynched with a rope resembling an American dollar sign.  The man is looking to his left (communism) for help.  It also imposes a larger conversation about how racism has supported capitalism during slavery.

Victor Koretsky, Untitled, c. 1960s.

Victor Koretsky, Untitled, c. 1960s.

A terrifying image of racism through the eyes of a young black person, who sees a Klansman and tears streaming down the face.

Viktor Koretsky, "Twins in Spirit and Blood" c.1960s

Viktor Koretsky, “Twins in Spirit and Blood” c.1960s

Koretsky equates American racism (Klansman) with the nuclear arms race (atom bomb).

Viktor Koretsky, "Freedom In America" c.1960

Viktor Koretsky, “Freedom In America” c.1970

A group of African-Americans chained in front of police with the backdrop of the New York City skyline and the home of Wall Street.  It is also symbolizes the hostile relationship between blacks and the police.  NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy comes to mind here.