Uncle Sam, with his stars and stripes, top hat, and stern expression, is the American mascot that every person from 9 to 99 could pick out of a lineup on the first try, but not many people know where he actually comes from. Incredibly, Uncle Sam isn't a stalwart of revolutionary sentiments or regional disagreements; rather, he was printed in a WWI propaganda poster having been born out of the burgeoning propaganda machine in the later 1910s. See how war and art collide in America's first widespread wartime poster campaign.
America Enters WWI, and the Campaign Begins
Although WWI had been going on since 1914, the United States didn't enter the war until 1917. Thanks to the massive amount of paper ephemera from the period advertising the war effort, you wouldn't think that America's involvement in the Great War was as short-lived as it was (amounting to only a year and a half).
After declaring war, the American government decided on a systemic approach to creating wartime advertising, and so they formed the Division of Pictorial Publicity in 1917 to oversee this initiative. Famous illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson were enlisted to spread the word that the government was looking for talented artists for their contributions to the war effort. What resulted is some of the most iconic American imagery in the Union's mythos.
WWI Propaganda Posters Draw Americans Into the War
Ultimately, these large, illustrated posters were used in lieu of the massive digital media campaigns that would be used today to incite the American public to participate in their part of the war effort. By printing millions of these posters, the war could infiltrate even the smallest American towns that would otherwise be unaffected by the horrors going on across the European continent. Thus, it was imperative that the artists could convey inspirational messages about specific government approved topics. These topics include:
- Labor shortage
- Food shortage
- Equipment shortage
- Medical staff shortage
Persuasive Tactics Used in These Posters
When faced with multiple examples of these historic artworks, you can't help but notice that there are a few recurring themes that appear in these posters, presumably used to try to persuade the public to do what the posters were encouraging. These persuasive tactics include the following.
They Appealed to the Idea of Community
WWI posters often mentioned words relating to your community, your neighbor, your children, and so on. In continually referencing these words, the posters were making positive associations with the war effort and the comforts of the people you loved while also using fear tactics associated with breaking your social contract with those around you to push you to buy those war bonds or donate materials to the government.
They Reminded People of Their Civic Duty
Civic duty is a fundamental characteristic of American society, and this through-line is clearly visible in these WWI propaganda posters. Words like 'duty' and 'service' connect to the patriotic thread in American culture that prioritizes what you can offer the country over what your personal desires are. This tactic is especially true for posters relating to enlistment.
They Used In-Group/Out-Group Psychology
Although this one isn't as common in WWI as it is in WWII propaganda posters, you can still find examples of in-group/out-group posters from the period. Things like racist depictions of the enemy, violent imagery, and incendiary remarks were all printed with pathos in mind and were trying to get the American people to weaponise their fear by giving that fear an identity to target.
Things to Consider When Collecting Antique WWI Posters
Full-sized authentic antique posters from this period relating to the war effort are usually sold for around $150 -$450, making them a moderately expensive collectible. While they're not as popular as WWII ephemera is, the fact that they're harder to find than WWII pieces makes them pretty valuable. Thus, when you're looking to acquire one of these historic documents, you want to consider the pieces' condition, authenticity, rarity, and size, as all of these characteristics can raise or lower its price.
To get an idea of what types of posters are currently selling, here are some posters that've either recently sold or been listed on eBay;
Where to Find Authentic WWI Propaganda Posters
Given their iconic visual styles and war-related subject matter, poster designs from World War I have been reproduced in the millions. While high-quality reproduction prints are decidedly cheaper, authentic pieces bring with them the weight and energy of the tumultuous moment in which they were created. Generally, these authentic posters are rather expensive and, given the delicate materials that they were printed on, an abundance of them didn't survive into the 21st century.
While you might be able to find one or two in a local antique store, your best bet is to take a look at online retailers for more options. These are some of the best places to check out for these unique posters:
- eBay - eBay is the first place you should head over to when you start looking for these WWI propaganda posters. Their inventory is constantly changing, meaning that what you don't find today might be there tomorrow.
- Etsy - Etsy may have more reproductions and fewer authentic posters than eBay has available, but they have just as user-friendly of a website as their popular e-commerce retailer competitor.
- The Vintage Poster - The Vintage Poster is a Washington based business that conserves antique and vintage posters/prints by backing them with linen and restoring any significant damage that's apparent. Their prices do reflect the amount of work they put into each piece, meaning that they're more expensive than other retailers.
Uncle Sam Wants You to Buy a Poster
Heed Uncle Sam's call, but instead of heading down to the nearest enlistment center, take yourself to your nearest antique store and see if they've got any of these beautiful posters available. It's not surprising in the least that you could get drawn into any one of these posters; after all, that's exactly what they were meant to do.