WWI PROPAGANDA POSTERS

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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I Want You for U.S. Army
James Montgomery Flagg

Flagg used himself as a model for Uncle Sam and appropriated the idea from a British poster that depicted Lord Kitchener with the text “Britons want you!" Between the First and Second World Wars when this poster was produced again, about five million were printed.

Let me start this article with a true story about wartime propaganda posters. In 1982, there was an exhibition of wartime posters in the Emily Lowe Gallery at Hofstra University entitled: Art and Psychological Warfare: World War II Posters. As a well-known propagandist and author I was invited to Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., to debate on the subject of posters. I took art as a minor in college, but I was asked to defend the text in an argument loosely defined as “what is more important, the words or the pictures.” In other words, I had to try and prove in front of about 300 college kids that the words on a poster were more important than the illustrations, usually painted by very well-known and popular painters. I knew I was going to get my butt kicked. There was no way that those students who loved the paintings and for the most part were art majors would say that the words were more important.

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The Hofstra University Museum

Still, I thought I was correct. The U.S. Government usually decided what kind of poster they wanted and told the writers what the theme should be and text should say. The words were always written first. Then, when they were perfect and met the specifications of those in higher echelons, an artist was called in to paint the picture. He had a certain freedom, but he had to paint around the words and support the words. This being so, how could his painting be more important than the words? An unknown woman being killed by unnamed soldiers was not as important as telling the readers that this was a British nurse named Edith Cavell that the Germans executed. It seemed clear to me. And, my old 1971 military manual: How to prepare copy for 7th PSYOP Publication had a chart called “The 7th PSYOP Production Cycle.” It clearly stated that the text was step number one, then came translation (if for a foreign country), layout, and in fourth place, illustration.

Well, of course, as expected, my butt was kicked. I was not surprised. I loved the images on the posters too, and I might have voted against myself given the chance.

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Elizabeth Baldwin

This article will be about the U.S. propaganda posters prepared in WWI. They are the lovingly gathered collection of Elizabeth Baldwin. She was from Duluth Minnesota, and tried to volunteer for overseas duty at the age of 17 to drive ambulances in France, but was rejected due to her youth. Her father, Mark Baldwin, had left his regular job as Vice-president of the Bridgeman-Russell Company and volunteered as Field Director at Camp Meade, Maryland, to rehabilitate the wounded troops returning from the battlefields of Europe. His message to his daughters was “Honor service to your country.” Elizabeth wanted to help the war effort somehow too.

To finance the war and promote recruitment, the U.S. government turned to the country's best artists for posters to be distributed throughout every city of the nation. Howard Chandler Christie painted iconic beautiful women to illustrate messages. His posters for “Fight or Buy Bonds” raised millions for the war effort. The poster program also promoted the military's call for women to serve overseas as translators, telephone operators, drivers and cryptologists. Over 30,000 American women ultimately answered the call, gaining support for their ongoing effort to obtain voting rights. The posters were published weekly and Elizabeth volunteered to deliver them to all the stores and public arenas of Duluth. She was told she was allowed to save the previous week’s posters from the trash, so her voluntary service was rewarded by what ultimately became a collection of over 150 mint-condition First World War posters.

The United States took part in WWI for less than 20 months but during that time produced about 2,500 different posters. Elizabeth believed that the British posters were crude, showing brutal acts like soldiers bayoneting each other and Germans attacking women. In fact, the British propaganda was so infamous that after WWI there was an entire generation of anti-war Americans that said the United States should never be brought into a war by British propaganda again. The term perfidious Albion (“Treacherous England”) became popular. It was an Anglophobic pejorative phrase that referred to alleged acts of duplicity and treachery in regard to alliances formed with Britain. It made it very difficult for President Roosevelt to help the British before the American entry into WWII. The Americans remembered the WWI stories of Belgian women raped and children tossed in the air and caught on bayonets. Propaganda became such a dirty word in the minds of Americans that the military changed the name to "Psychological warfare" and later to "Psychological operations." Propaganda was a filthy word never to be used.

Elizabeth also gave lectures to school groups, social clubs,Chambers of Commerce, Genealogical Groups and Historical Societies using the posters to illustrate the influence of psychological warfare and propaganda. She mentions some of the talks she gave to these groups; I have edited it down for brevity:

From the earliest days of mankind ideas were expressed in pictures. Ice age men 23,000 years ago drew pictures in caves. During the 19th century, with cheap lithography, posters became popular. The start of WWI caused an explosion of posters in all the warring countries, getting vital messages across to all the multitudes. The paper was thin so posters could be distributed cheaply by the thousands. One thing you will notice in the American posters: there is a great restraint in showing direct confrontation or dead bodies.

Curiously, this WWI propaganda volunteer would later marry Richard S.R. Hubert, who became the Chief of the Forward Area of the U.S. Office of War Information, which prepared American WWII anti-Japanese  propaganda on Saipan in the Mariana Islands. Psychological warfare seems to have run in the family.

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The U.S. Army First Infantry Division Museum

At the age of 92 she donated the Poster collection to the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division Museum at Cantigny just outside Chicago. She died in 1996 at the age of ninety-six.

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Field Manual 33-1

The United States Army Field Manual 33-1 Psychological Operations described posters.

Posters include all single-sheet printed and graphic (illustrations, sketches, photographs, and symbols) materials which impart a message by being publicly posted. They are used to inform; their ultimate purpose is to enlist support. The message is generally emotionally colored, intended primarily to influence emotions and gain emotional support. Posters are a universal medium, easy and inexpensive to produce and place--almost any surface is suitable. Since they present their message pictorially, they have a universal audience that includes illiterates. Properly placed, they cannot be avoided. When placed where people congregate, they stimulate discussion, broadening the impact of the message. Since the opinions of neutral or other noninvolved foreign audiences may affect the courses of action of the enemy government, its security forces, or its allied and assisting government, posters should be made interesting and appealing to these foreign audiences.

Use formats, art styles, and forms that are familiar to and appropriate for the target audience. If possible, produce an art form that people want to possess and display. Give maximum space to simple graphic productions. They attract an audience and significantly increase the impact of the message. Complex graphics, on the other hand, generally confuse the audience and are subject to ambiguous and undesirable interpretations by the audience. Use photographs or photomontages. People believe them. The less sophisticated the audience, the greater the belief. Use symbols, inanimate and animate (including human), that are significant to the target audience. Symbols which have positive characteristics (bravery, integrity, leadership, etc.) to the target add prestige and impact to the message.

As colors have different connotations in different societies, it is important that colors and color combinations used in posters be appropriate to the culture of the target audience. Improper colors may be counterproductive or, at best, nonproductive. It may be necessary for people to read the unfriendly poster while on the move. Therefore, the poster should be printed in letters of a size that can be read and seen at distances from 10 to 15 meters. For example, an enemy government may impose stringent penalties on any members of its armed forces or civilian population displaying an interest in enemy posters. Or if an enemy shadow government is active and effective, a display of interest in a poster may result in loss of life or limb, injury to family, or destruction of property. The main point, clearly and immediately stated, should occupy the visual center of the poster so it is seen first. In addition, all textual material must relate to the main point of the message.

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How to Prepare Propaganda

This U.S. Army picture shows how propaganda products like posters are made. At the upper left are the PSYOP specialists, psychologists, cultural experts and others who decide on the theme and general outline of the product. At the upper right the text is written and typed, then inked in and the artwork begins. At lower left the product is printed and at lower right it is disseminated among friendly or enemy civilians.

Now that we know the military purpose of the posters I will depict about a dozen different, each with an important theme that is worth studying. Elizabeth Baldwin actually lists the themes she thinks are important: sacrifice; liberty bonds and war stamps; enlistment; the Lusitania; the Boy Scouts; the Red Cross; a call for women to work; conservation; relief; and religion. She has many more of course, but there is some duplication and some blurring of the lines. I think I will start this section of the story using some of her themes and some that I think are important.

THE POSTERS

Sacrifice:

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Wake up America
James Montgomery Flagg

As soon as war was officially declared, over 10,000 copies of Flagg’s “Wake up America” were sent to the Boy Scouts, women’s groups and bill-posting agencies for distribution. America was going to war and it was the artists that drew the posters that would wake them up out of their slumber and as Admiral Yamamoto said in WWII after Pearl Harbor: “…awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

The poster shows a sleeping woman dressed in Stars & Stripes, symbolizing an unready America. This poster was featured in the “Wake Up, America” Day in New York City. Actress Mary Arthur was Flagg's model for Columbia who is a personification of America and Liberty. While she dozes against a fluted column, another visual reference to Western classical antiquity and civilization, sinister storm clouds gather in the background. Europe is all aflame and yet America peacefully sleeps on.

Flagg designed a total of 46 posters during the First and Second World Wars, including perhaps the best known posters of all time: I WANT YOU, designed in 1917. By the end of WWII almost 5 million copies of that iconic poster had been printed.

Buy Bonds:

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Fight or Buy Bonds
Howard Chandler Christy – 1917

There are dozens of posters that mention buying war bonds. There were a number of “victory loan” drives that asked the public to invest in war bonds. I cannot mention them all but some of the more powerful posters are as follows. The first Victory Loan had posters that depicted farmers, soldiers, and even scenes of France. The second loan produced posters that depicted the Statue of Liberty, President Wilson and the “black hand” of the Huns. The third loan featured posters depicting Lincoln, the Liberty Bell, a beautiful flag-waving woman, a soldier holding back a German trying to get to a woman and baby, and a soldier leaving for the front. The fourth loan posters featured pleading mothers and children, a menacing German soldier, A vigilant sword-wielding woman, a German soldier holding a Belgian woman, a woman with a navy gun crew, aircraft over the Statue of Liberty. These bond drives were very successful. The two drives sold out at three billion, and then 4 billion in just three weeks. The final drive drew in six billion dollars in 10 days. During WWII everyone I knew had war bonds. When the war was over there were probably thousands of houses bought by the returning troops with the proceeds of the war bonds.

Christy went with U.S. troops to Cuba in 1898 and gained a reputation as a wartime artist. He was also famous for his murals, the most famous being the Signing of the Constitution in the Capital in Washington D.C.

Buy stamps:

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Help him win by Saving and Serving.

The savings stamp posters are fewer than the bond posters. I see them featuring Uncle Sam, Joan of Arc, and workers. This poster is unsigned. It depicts children with American General “Black Jack” Pershing. As a child in WWII each week in school we purchased one 25 cents saving stamp. They were pasted in a book. When the book was full, equal to $17.25, it was handed it and in return you received a crisp $25 War bond. It did not reach full value for several years of course, but it was the start of a savings regimen for many children.

General Enlistment: Army

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Columbia Calls
Francis Adams Halsted and V. Aderente

Elizabeth thought that the enlistment posters were extremely important and I saw this one featured in her notes. This one seems to have it all. We see a beautiful woman as Columbia, a symbol of the United States; patriotic flag in one hand and sword in the other; she will take no nonsense. America is going to war and she is leading the way. The colors are bright and the message is clear. These messages call out to patriotic youth. I left college during the Korean War because I felt a very strong responsibility to protect this country that so nurtured me. It was a sacrifice and changed my life greatly but I never regretted it. That was a time when we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school and we were brought up to love and respect the country and felt the need to always protect it. People thank me for my service today, but the way we were brought up, how could you not enlist?

Military enlistment: Marines

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Tell that to the Marines!
James Montgomery Flagg

This is another poster drawn by Montgomery Flagg. His most famous; "I Want You for U.S. Army,” is at the top of the page. This was Flagg’s second most popular drawing.

Americans think of this as an iconic statement regarding the elite fighting force, the United States Marine Corps. The funny part is that it was an old 1804 British insult implying that a person was a liar and not to be trusted and he should be told to take his story to the Marines because the Navy was too smart to fall for it. For most Americans, this phrase became a point of pride when President Roosevelt stated in a Fireside chat on February 23, 1942:

From Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo we have been described as a Nation of weaklings, “playboys” who would hire British soldiers, or Russian soldiers, or Chinese soldiers to do our fighting for us. Let them repeat that now! Let them tell that to General MacArthur and his men. Let them tell that to the sailors who today are hitting hard in the far waters of the Pacific. Let them tell that to the boys in the Flying Fortresses. Let them tell that to the Marines!

 

Military enlistment: Navy

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Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man - I'd Join the Navy
Howard Chandler Christy

There were dozens of very attractive posters pushing civilians to join the Navy. I like this one because it really implies that any real man would be in the Navy already. Here is a girl that wants to join…so what is holding you back? Christy was famous for the “Christy Girl,” a successor to the “Gibson Girl.” He had painted soldiers during the Spanish-American war. He made a decision to paint beautiful women in his WWI posters. They would be tall, strong and confident.

Military enlistment: Air Force

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Join the Army Air Service

Even before the United States entry into World War I in April 1917, many Americans volunteered to serve in the armed forces of Great Britain and France. Many found their ways into the Royal Flying Corps or Aeronautique Militaire. The British integrated the Americans into their existing squadrons, while the French set up separate American squadrons such as the Lafyette Escadrille. When American Air Service units began reaching England and France in the fall of 1917, many of the Americans serving in British and French squadrons transferred to the American units.

I call this segment “Air Force” but of course there was no Air Force in the United States until 1947 when it was authorized. Before that it was the “Army Air Force.” This poster is unsigned. It depicts the iconic American eagle attacking a cowardly enemy vulture. In WWII there were dozens of cartoons that always showed the Germans or Japanese as vultures. Usually some little American canary that looked like “Tweedy bird” would beat the hell out of the big cowardly vulture.

The Lusitania:

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Take up the Sword of Justice

In 1915, Britain was at war with Germany. The United States was neutral. On May 7, the Lusitania, a British ocean liner sailing from America to England was sunk by a German submarine some 12 miles off Ireland’s southern coast. There were 764 survivors, but nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, lost their lives. The Lusitania, which had been the world’s largest ship when launched in 1906, went down in just 18 minutes after a single torpedo hit. Survivors reported there had been two explosions, a smaller one followed moments later by an enormous one. This was affirmed by the log of the U-20, the submarine which sank her. The Germans claimed that the allegedly "neutral" passenger ship was secretly carrying armaments for Great Britain. The Germans had also taken out advertisements in American newspapers warning that the ship was sailing into a war zone and could be sunk. The warning was disregarded by the great majority of Americans. This sinking was part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and inflamed the United States and helped to push it into an unwanted war with Germany.

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German Lusitania Medals

The Germans seem to have no knowledge of the way their actions affected the rest of the world. After they sunk the Lusitania killing civilians and women and children, they actually produced a commemorative medal to brag about their action. Karl Goetz designed the medallion where one side shows the ship going down with the words “No contraband” at the top and “The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine 5 May 1915” at the bottom. The engraver added cannons and airplanes on the deck of the ship to justify its sinking. The back of the medallion depicts a mob of people buying Lusitania tickets from a figure representing death and the words “Business above all” while a man in the crowd reads a newspaper with the headline “U-Boat Danger!”

British Intelligence copied the medallion and advertised it around the world to show the barbarian nature of the Germans. Some 300,000 British replicas of the medallion were made on the instructions of Captain Reginald Hall R.N., the Director of Naval Intelligence.

The Boy Scouts:

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Boy Scouts of America - Weapons for liberty
J.C. Leyendecker

Elizabeth thought the Boy Scouts were important so who am I to argue with her. This is actually a war bond poster, but the main subject is an American Boy Scout handing a sword bearing the motto “Be Prepared” to Liberty. Several posters feature the Boy Scouts but this is by far the most impressive.

I had a Boy Scout troop in New York State, “577” by name. I was Commander of my American Legion post and we sponsored the troop and held their charter. They were a wonderful bunch and spent more time in the woods that the Green Berets. I used to laugh when people would comment on how bad the youth of today acted. I thought of my kids going for Eagle Scout and preparing resumes that sometimes were 80 or 100 pages in size, every page listing achievements, good deeds and service to the community. Those kids were amazing. I would sometimes tell the new Eagle Scout that “right now this is the biggest moment of your life. Be sure to keep moving forward and top this occasion.” In WWII I recall that the Scouts knocked on doors and collected newspapers, pots and pans, and even fats. They were a great part of the civilian war effort.

The Red Cross:

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The Greatest Mother in the World
A.E. Foringer

Elizabeth saved a great number of Red Cross posters. I see them with: a Christy girl; a wounded soldier; a child placing a flag in the window; President Wilson; a Christmas candle; a Christmas tree; the Capitol building; and numerous others.

Of course, I wanted to show the Christy poster because the woman is so beautiful, but it does not actually say “Red Cross.” So, I picked one that is a bit controversial. When I first read the title I thought: “In the USA at that time wouldn’t the virgin Mary be considered the greatest mother in the world?” The poster depicts a giant Red Cross nurse holding a wounded soldier the size of a child. I then realized that I was right. The artist had taken Michelangelo’s “The Pieta” and the nurse was the Virgin Mary, holding the injured soldier in place of the body of Jesus Christ. Today there are some who would have a fit about the government using a religious theme; I suspect WWI was a less confrontational time.

Foringer was famous for designing European and Canadian banknotes, but it still best known for this poster which was so successful that it was used again in WWII.

A call for women to work:

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For Every Fighter a Female Worker
Adolph Triedler Brown

There were a number of posters that depicted working women in the collection; many also mentioned the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), a place where one could get a room very cheaply if they chose to leave home. Among the posters is: a woman building airplanes and armaments; a telephone operator; French women working in a factory; women marching with tools; and female farmers. I chose the one that was most interesting to me. A female factory worker in overalls holds a WWI biplane in her right hand and an artillery shell in her left hand. The implication is clear; while the men are at the front she has taken their place in the work force. There was a WWII motto: “Keep 'Em Flying.” This poster falls right into that group. It is a great piece of art.

Conservation:

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Feed a Fighter
Wallace Morgan

Elizabeth had several posters on the theme of conservation: A starving mother and child; a worker; a soldier eating in a trench; and two soldiers charging forward with fixed bayonets. When you look at the vast number of such posters you see demands that wheat be saved, bread eaten less, save fats and sugars, etc. In other words, just about everything had to be put aside so that the men at the front could be properly fed. I am sure this was a sacrifice that most people made willingly. I remember as a child in WWII that you had stamps for just about everything. If you wanted to buy meat or butter you used ration stamps. We gave up our car because rubber and gasoline were needed by the troops. If you had aluminum pots they were donated to build B-29 bombers. These minor sacrifices make you believe that you are taking an active part in the war effort.

The poster I selected from Elizabeth’s cache shows a WWI “Doughboy” sitting in a wet trench, his feet buried in mud. His trusty M1903 Springfield rifle is by his side. Another soldier walks away, probably carrying a large tin of hot coffee. Our happy soldier has a cup of hot “Joe,” and for the moment he is satisfied to be at peace and warm. You understand that in an hour he may go over the top and be killed. Who would begrudge him a meal?

Morgan was one of the “official” artists of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in 1917 and 1918. He later illustrated covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

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My Ration Book from WWII

I was looking through some old papers today and here is my ration book. In those days if you tried to buy meat or butter or gasoline and it was available, you paid the price and then handed over stamps from your ration book. This book states that I am six years old, 4 feet and six inches tall and weigh 45 pounds. When you went shopping you took cash and your ration book. No ration stamps, no meat.

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Victory is a question of Stamina
Harvey Dunn

I so liked this poster that I decided to place two items in this category. We see two doughboys charging forward with fixed bayonets. “No man’s land” and barbed wire is directly ahead but they do not falter. They are well fed, strong and ready to fight the hated “Hun” to the death. Notice what they have been fed: wheat; meat; fats and sugar; all “fuel for the fighters” we are told. Who would not give up as piece of bread and some butter for these brave men?

Relief:

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Lest we Perish
Ethel Franklin Betts

There are several posters asking Americans to donate to send food and supplies to various allies and friendly countries. Elizabeth has one for Serbia, and others for Armenia, Greece, Syria, and Persia. It appears that even 100 years ago America was already a breadbasket helping to feed the world. Not much has changed. I actually preferred another similar post entitled “Give or we perish,” but it was in a dull monotone. This leaflet is not quite as emotional, but it is multicolored and it is important to have some bright colors on the page.

Religion:

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Help Him
Unsigned

Elizabeth thought that religion was an important theme but I see very few posters that actually address that subject. There was one for the Jewish Welfare Board that seemed ironic considering what the Germans would do to the Jews in WWII. I finally selected a Christian poster, mostly because of the blue color. In Desert Storm we were actually issued Bibles, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they were made available in Desert Camouflage to anyone who wanted to carry one through the war. Here, the gift of a pocket Bible is desired for the soldier to help him to live right, to fight nobly, and to face peril courageously.

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The Desert Storm Bible

I got this bible back about 1990 and I never noticed until this moment that it does not say “Bible” on the front. Apparently some politically correct official told the American Bible Society that we don’t wish to use words like Bible in front of our Muslim friends who we were going in harm’s way to protect.

Controversy:

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That Liberty shall not perish from the Earth
Joseph Pennell

Elizabeth did not mention controversy as a theme, but this particular poster caused lots of it. She has several typewritten pages on it so I thought it was worth adding to the story.

It showed the entrance to New York City's Harbor under aerial and naval bombardment, with New York in flames and the Statue of Liberty partly destroyed; her head and her torch blown off. The critics lambasted this image. It was defeatist, New York City could never be destroyed by German aircraft and the Statue of Liberty was copper, so how could it burn?

Pennell wrote a book entitled The Liberty Loan Poster, A text Book for amateurs, which was all about this poster. A complete collection of his work is in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He said that the image came to him on a train while returning to Philadelphia from a meeting in New York City:

The idea came into my head and I jotted it down in my sketchbook, on the train, with a lithographic pencil, and though the bridges are in the air the design otherwise has scarcely been changed. The text on the legend was not mine. I wanted BUY LIBERTY BONDS OR YOU WILL SEE THIS.

Pennell complained that he wanted one line in red but that was refused. He wanted his name on the poster but the printed made it invisible. He complains that his wishes were completely ignored. He says that the printers were paid and the artists worked for free. He felt that the government should have educated the printers who were in fact just a necessary evil. He was not a happy camper.

Conclusion

This short story is homage to Elizabeth Baldwin who tried to enlist at age 17 and instead delivered WWI posters in her community to help the war effort. She had a massive collection and I could have depicted 100 posters, but I chose just a few that I thought told the story best. Others might pick different posters, but the advantage of the author is that he gets to pick the ones he likes. These posters are from a purer time when people were not so cynical and use words like “hokey” or “propaganda” or “crass sentimentalism.” These were patriotic people, sure in their belief in God and country and the posters spoke to them. I hope the reader can get that same feeling of pride in these pictures that I did. They are wonderfully done. Because I did not want this to be a dull art lecture I tried to personalize the story as much as I could and show the similarities that occurred in later wars. I hope the readers did not find my personal comments too distracting.

Readers who care to comment on this article are encouraged to write to the author at Sgmbert@hotmail.com.