When you think of World War 2 propaganda posters, you probably think of the iconic wartime warrior herself--Rosie the Riveter. However, the massive propaganda machine during the late 1930s through the 1940s churned out so many more examples of interesting, complex, and contemporarily troubling imagery. While it's all good and well to tack up your Rosie postcard on the corner of your bulletin board, it's important to understand just what the meaning behind these images was and how they've impacted the world today.
What Is a Propaganda Poster?
Propaganda, at its essence, is something created to persuade a group of people into believing something. It's most often observed during conflict. Various governments comissioned posters in both World War I and World War II to keep public morale and commitment to the war effort high. Nearly every country involved in the war had their own domestic propaganda posters, and the unique styles that can be found are thanks to each commissioned artist taking their own interpretations into the 2-D medium.
Posters were placed in various locations to remind citizens to support the war effort. From barbershops to store front windows, people constantly viewed images that were created to inspire patriotism and pride in their home country while inciting wrath against the enemy. The images, colors, and wording used were specifically chosen to manipulate people's emotions and encourage intense response. While posters weren't the only type of propaganda that the government used during World War II, they were the most eye-catching and have long since become one of the immediate cultural references for that period in history.
World War II Brings a New Age to Propaganda Art
The golden age of posters was in full-effect by the time the second global conflict erupted in the late-1930s. With a massive industrial machine already working tirelessly to pump out new poster content, it was only natural that both Allied and Axis members began using their graphic and traditional artists to create easy-to-digest imagery which either lambasted the enemy or uplifted the homefront.
This psychological warfare was both subliminal and sublime, leading to them becoming some of the most recognizable imagery of the 20th century. Take, for instance, the ever-popular Rosie the Riveter image promoting domestic work on the war effort. Far more people remember her image than can recite significant battles or generals from the war, and that just shows the power of propaganda.
While both sides of the war created persuasive posters relating to aspects of the conflict, the most celebrated today were those from the Allied forces, particularly those of American and English origin. In fact, some of the most famous artists of the period were commissioned by government agencies like the Office of Wartime Information. They created ad campaigns that've lasted well beyond the war itself. Some of these artists were:
- Norman Rockwell
- Anton Otto Fischer
- James Montgomery Flagg
- Howard Chandler Christy
Popular Subjects of Propaganda Posters From WWII
While it seems that these posters should have been predominately focused on obvious wartime subjects like recruitment, they actually spanned a huge scope of domestic and enlisted life, working to encourage people at every social strata to support their country. Some posters reminded citizens about matters of national security while others encouraged sacrifice on the home front. These posters also weren't as sanitized as shows from the period like I Love Lucy might make it seem; for instance, cautionary posters warning against venereal disease were widely published.
Ultimately, these posters used illustrations and catchy slogans to encourage people to do such things as use fewer valuable materials, work in the military industrial complex, join the armed forces and recruit others into them, as well as bolster anger in people towards the countries that they were fighting against. Some of the major categories of these posters include:
- War bonds
- National security
- Relief efforts
- Food production
- Manufacture of war materials
- Red Cross/nursing
- Items for "The Boys over there"
- Venereal Disease
World War 2 Propaganda Posters More Famous Than the War Itself
You might think that the many horrific images that've documented the human rights violations happening during World War II would be the ones seared into people's minds, but the animated and saturated propaganda posters from the period are the unlikely winners of that title. In fact, a few iconic images have become synonymous with the war itself.
Rosie the Riveter
The legendary poster featuring a determined and dolled up woman in coveralls, bearing her muscles to the viewer in front of a bright yellow background, is perhaps the best-known piece of propaganda in history. Commonly referred to Rosie the Riveter, this poster played on the duality between feminine appearance and masculine work that was culturally accepted at the time, and attempted to bolster a fire in the women who saw it to leave their domestic work and join industrial jobs. The posters promoted the idea that just like Rosie could do it, "we can do it" too.
This piece was first painted by J. Howard Miller in 1942 and had no connection to this Rosie the Riveter identity, but it was soon eclipsed by Norman Rockwell's own version of this allegorical working woman featured in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. To understand just how valuable this character has become to the world, Rockwell's version sold for $4.95 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2002. Unfortunately for huge fans of these prints, it's incredibly unlikely that you'll find genuine examples from the period for reasonable prices.
Gee! I Wish I Were a Man & I Want You
Not every iconic print from this period originated at the outset of the war. In fact, several patriotic images from World War I were recycled during World War II. One of the most famous of these is James Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You" poster featuring Uncle Sam sticking his finger out at the viewer. This hardened character became so tied to the war that most people think it was first introduced during the World War II.
Another of these posters was painted by the famous early 20th century artist, Howard Chandler Christy, in 1917 and entitled "Gee! I Wish I Were a Man." "Gee! I Wish I Were a Man" differs in Rosie the Riveter's more common bombastic and brightly colored style with its soft, watery tones and muted colors. However, it's messaging--albeit one that's both sexist and binary--worked to use the social expectations of masculinity to be pushed into joining a branch of the armed forces (specifically, the Navy). The poster's message was clear; it's better to die at war than to be perceived as feminine, or to be perceived as less-masculine than the women around you.
Unlike Rosie, original full-sized prints of "Gee! I Wish I Were a Man" can be found at online auctions across the internet. Places like eBay have them listed between $1,000-$3,000, depending on their condition. For example, this seller has one print from 1917 listed for sale for $2,900.
Of Course I Can
The "Of Course I Can" poster from 1944 and painted by Dick Williams, addresses a central element to the poster propaganda machine itself--the domestic sphere. There was only so much encouraging or indoctrination that soldiers fighting on the front lines needed from persuasive imagery. Thus, posters were largely addressing those avoiding the front lines but helping the war effort back home. Things such as rationing, car sharing, planting 'victory' gardens, and so on were illustrated to guide the public--who was distant from the war itself--on what to do to contribute to helping their side win the war.
World War II Posters for All Price Ranges
Propaganda posters from World War II are pretty pricey collectibles, though still generally affordable compared to different collectibles out there. Based on recent sales, your average full-sized propaganda poster (usually originating from the United States), is priced between $100-$200. Incredibly well-preserved posters and rare prints, like many of those featured on the Meehan Military Posters website, can be listed between $800-$2,000, with mitigating factors like condition, artists, and so on contributing to the final price.
Here are a few recent sales of these propaganda posters that represent their average selling prices.
- Creased Norman Rockwell 1943 war bonds poster - Sold for $179.99
- Dick Williams 1944 "Of Course I Can" poster - Sold for $147.39
- John Franklin Whitman 1944 American Red Cross poster - Sold for $102.50
At the same time, there are tons of affordable posters for sale as well. Granted, to get these cheaper prices, collectors sacrifice size and condition. Additionally, posters without known artists or ones that're completely unmarked can sell for less. Quarter-sized posters, slightly damaged posters, and unmarked posters typically sell for around $20-$50 on average. For example, here are two of these posters that've recently sold online:
- 1943 "Don't Throw Victory Away" small poster - Sold for $21.50
- Moderate condition Norman Rockwell 1943 "Freedom From Fear" poster - Sold for $31
Where to Find World War 2 Posters
World War 2 posters, like other vintage posters, were never really meant to last a long time. They were printed on cheap paper and subjected to all kinds of weather conditions and states of preservation. Due to this, many of the original posters haven't survived. Yet, it's still possible to find these fascinating bits of history for sale every once in a while.
Always check local antique stores and used book stores to see if they have anything in their inventory. Often books and magazines from the period will have a page of two of small propaganda posters in the publication, making them full of hidden treasures to look for. Antique auctions are another possible source. However, the internet is still the most predictable resource for vintage posters. Read every listing carefully; while there're many online sources for reproductions, not very many carry the original posters. Some places that do carry these original posters are:
- Meehan Military Posters - Meehan Military Posters is an online store full of antique and vintage military posters ranging in sizes, ages, and prices.
- Rare Posters - Rare Posters has a huge collection of difficult to find posters for sale; a few of the categories on their website that relate to World War II propaganda posters include 'WW2 US recruiting,' WW2 US homefront,' and 'WW2 foreign posters' to name a few.
- David Pollak Vintage Posters - At David Pollak Vintage Posters, you can find an array of historic prints for sale. This online retailer is particularly interesting because of its multi-national listings of posters from World War II. Regional posters include ones from Germany, the British Commonwealth, and France, to name a few.
- eBay - Ebay is by far one of the best places to find affordable World War II posters for sale online. However, it's important to read each listing carefully and to check in with the seller before purchasing anything to make sure that what they've listed is a genuine poster and not a later print or reproduction.
Reproductions Are All the Rage
One thing to keep in mind when buying historic posters is that they're frequently reproduced with modern technology, and these contemporary prints are worth a fraction of the originals. When you're buying vintage posters, remember to check the materials that they're made of, see if there's any aging, and look for documentation proving the poster's date of origin.
When online shopping, and especially looking through retailers like eBay, you should ask sellers a lot of questions. Ask the seller for more pictures until you are satisfied that you're getting what you want. Always ask for a Certificate of Authenticity if the seller doesn't offer it, since these collectibles can be a big monetary investment in some cases. Finally, be sure that you understand the seller's return policy so that if you didn't get what you thought you were getting, you can send it back.
The Colorful Way to Display World War II Around Your Home
Whether you can afford to collect genuine World War II propaganda posters or you can add a beautiful reproduction piece or two to your office, these posters still stand as important testaments to the government-sanctioned persuasive tactics of the past century. Even greater still is the reminder that they pose for everyone today that language is a powerful weapon, and not only has been but continues to be used to influence you in ways that you might not even be aware of.