Until recently, serious thinking about propaganda had seemed like a subject at rest, tidily contained in reflections on the victory over fascism following World War Two. Since 2010, we have witnessed the worldwide resurgence of populism and white nationalism, especially in the United States. Toxic ideologies and rising authoritarianism are now widely understood as serious threats to liberal democracy. If the echoes of fascism have brought the 1930s and ‘40s troublingly to mind, it’s worth recalling that modern propaganda became a global enterprise during the First World War, rather than the second. For the US, that conflict was brief, lasting less than two years. But the ideological output was prodigious.
When the United States Congress declared war on the Imperial German government in April 1917, belatedly entering World War I at Woodrow Wilson’s urging, the nation was flat-footed, unready for conflict. In addition to a lack of military preparedness, a divided citizenry needed rousing to get on a war footing. A propaganda operation would have to be mustered. Soon that job fell to George Creel, a former Rocky Mountain News editor who assumed the chairmanship of the new Committee on Public Information, an independent government agency formed by President Wilson’s executive order on April 13. Over the next two years, the CPI — a de facto department of propaganda — would sprout many “divisions,” or areas of activity, but few would rival what became the poster shop: the Division of Pictorial Publicity.
Creel understood the propaganda role that posters could play, partly because combatant nations had been using them for years, since the outbreak of war in 1914. In the United States, Creel later wrote in How We Advertised America (published in 1920), “The poster must play a great role in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read; people might choose not to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.”
The roots of Great War visual propaganda sprouted in the last decades of the 19th century, specifically in refinements to large format chromolithography and the development of a spot color design aesthetic by fin-de-siècle French poster designers. By “spot color,” I mean the commercial design practice exploited by Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of modern color assignations for communicative, rather than illusionist, purposes. An international “poster craze” followed the French example in Europe and America.
Another development contributed to emerging propaganda. During the 1890s, a new generation of American magazine publishers developed an alternative for the dusty old “family house” magazines which published literary and historical subjects. The new breed embraced current topics and sought popular appeal, crucially by lowering prices. Because cheaper issues would have to be underwritten by advertising revenue, magazines like Munsey’s and Cosmopolitan sold rafts of ads to new consumer product manufacturers. Advertisements quickly evolved into a fresh visual medium. In the process, magazine covers and full-page advertisements provided the space and money for illustrators and designers to create a new commercial science of word, image, and letterform. Working with editors, art directors, and ad clients, they honed their skills to stimulate, even implant, consumer desire for new products.
In the late 19th century, the illustrators — often formally trained — were not strictly distinguished from painters, and their practices remained somewhat fluid. But as the art historian Michele Bogart has noted in Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art, soon the stink of commercialism specifically associated with advertising work clung to the status of illustrators. Partly in response, in 1901 a core group led by Charles Dana Gibson founded a professional association with a fancy name: the Society of Illustrators — still in business today on East 63rd Street in New York City. They hung exhibitions of member artworks, amused themselves with elaborate stag parties, and sought to burnish the reputation of their new profession.
George Creel approached Gibson in the spring of 1917. By then the artist had long held the presidency of the Society. Charles Dana Gibson was a statesman of sorts, an undisputed celebrity artist, creator of the first American “it” girl — the Gibson Girl, naturally — a buxom-but-refined young woman of the world, corseted yet active, decisively chinned and topped by cascading curls. She defined American glamour and new womanhood from the 1890s to 1910. The two men agreed to work together, informally at first. After the arrangement produced unsatisfying results, Creel asked Gibson to serve as chair of the Division of Pictorial Publicity in November 1917.
The design theorist Hanno Ehses recognized that effective poster design relies on the tools of classical rhetoric and everyday figures of speech. In “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric” he used Shakespeare’s tragedy as a rhetorical case study to generate poster compositions. The Scottish play is rich with images tethered to moral questions: “damned spots” that won’t wash out. It’s not a big leap from MacBeth to political propaganda, another rhetorical stage. The arguments to be made for or against the actions of governments and nation states involve comparisons, substitutions, and compressions of various types. X is like y (simile) and x = y (metaphor) show up a lot. So too do part-for-wholes and wholes-for-parts exchanges (synecdoche) and associative stand-ins (metonyms) like “the Pentagon” to convey the American military.
The most common figures of speech used in illustrated propaganda are human ones: in a word, the technique of personification. We readily accept the use of a character to represent an object, phenomenon, or abstract concept: Lady Luck, Jack Frost, and the new year’s baby are all examples of personification. (The animated broom in Disney’s classic The Sorcerer’s Apprentice likewise is personified, without any need for language to mediate.)
Two established personifications of the United States were available to illustrators in 1917–18, and both were updated and pressed into service: Columbia, a youthful woman, representing liberty; and Uncle Sam, a vigorous, white-tufted, old man who exhorts his nephews to defend the country. One illustrator in particular milked both of these characters for poster concepts. James Montgomery Flagg cranked out “Wake Up, America!” within weeks of the U.S. declaration of hostilities.
Flagg was a classic man-about-town, devoted to the high life, who counted performers and socialites among his circle. He got actress Mary Arthur to sit for Columbia. He presents her dozing in a wicker chair before a fluted column, bedecked with stars and stripes and topped with a Phyrgian cap (see also the Kenyon Cox illustration for McClure’s from 1898, above). Despite Flagg’s efforts, there’s something silly about “Wake Up, America!” Columbia comes off as a drowsy priestess at the local Roman temple, incongruously dolled up for a patriotic pajama party as an unseen monster advances. Dark clouds gather. The textual voice bellows at her: “Wake up!” Hortatory copy in all-caps lettering runs across the bottom: “Civilization calls every man, woman, and child!”
Not only Flagg, but also Columbia fails to persuade. Though abstractly derived from Christopher Columbus, her namesake’s contemporary outré status as a colonizing scoundrel was not a factor in the early 20th century. She just didn’t have enough to do. At root, Columbia was bland, which explains why she had already been supplanted by Lady Liberty, that femme with a torch and an agenda in New York harbor.
James Montgomery Flagg rebooted Uncle Sam far more memorably. He famously used himself for a model, giving the old character (dated to the war of 1812, updated by Thomas Nast in the 1860s) a freshly gruff mien for his first appearance on the cover of Leslie’s Illustrated News. The pointed finger, stern look and dandy costume were all there, over a legend of “I WANT YOU.” A second version of the same drawing executed in a larger scale for the Division of Pictorial Publicity came later in the year, with “For U.S. Army” appended to his lettered demand. Although Flagg would produce over 40 posters during 1917–18, with many featuring Uncle Sam, none would outperform I WANT YOU, which sold over four million copies in two years.
The Gibson Girl was supplanted by a variety of competing “it” girls. All were proto-flappers: slimmer, more animated, s-curve corsets discarded. The contenders included the “Brinkley Girl,” “Fisher Girl,” and “Christie Girl,” the work product of Nell Brinkley, Harrison Fisher, and Howard Chandler Christie, respectively. All contributed to the war effort. But Howard Chandler Christie secured the attentions of the United States Navy, for whom he produced nearly every recruiting poster during the war. Christie’s women exhort, coax, and event taunt men into volunteering for service. “Gee!! I wish I were a man,” dreams a woman in a sailor suit, “I’d join the Navy.” The typeset copy lowers the boom: “BE A MAN AND DO IT.”
The birth of the consumer economy and the emergence of modern advertising mark the early 20th century. The skills used to sell baking powder, Jell-o, and cosmetics were applied to the promotion of armed conflict. Sometimes those agendas intermingle, and the results can be jarring. In a discomfiting 1919 ad for Luxite Hosiery, we see the flip side of wartime propaganda after the fact. The sexy Navy recruiter who “wishe[d] she were a man” has re-embraced angelic femininity. Gesturing grandly if delicately, her attentions are nominally devoted to the sailor she urged to sign up, convalescing in a wheelchair. He serves as a patriotic prop. She has been reborn as a fashionable caregiver with great legs.
Finally, a kind of beastly personification was used to characterize the enemy. The “hun” was repeatedly depicted as insatiable fiend, never more vividly than in Harry Hopps’s “Destroy this mad brute” poster. A rampaging gorilla in a Kaiser helmet with matching mustache has come ashore, having ravaged the desolate city behind him. His right hand brandishes a bloody club labeled Kultur, while his left arm gathers a half-dressed, distraught blonde: the straw-woman, whose honor must be defended at all costs. The brute intriguingly anticipates King Kong, the monster primate to ravage midtown 15 years hence.
American propaganda in World War I goes well beyond the posters commissioned by the DPP. Songwriters, vaudevillians, pamphleteers, filmmakers, essayists, and orators contributed to the effort, in addition to illustrators and cartoonists. At its best, the graphic output of those years demonstrated the rhetorical and creative prowess of American artists trained in advertising from the turn of the century. Ironically, the illustrators led by Gibson used public service to mitigate negative associations with “commercialism,” even though the propaganda they churned out was simply advertising for a bigger client.
But what of the contemporary question? The racism and xenophobia of the Donald Trump regime have provoked an active response from people in today’s creative industries. Illustrators and cartoonists have mounted a propaganda effort of their own. They have mocked the president, to be sure, but have also advocated for a vision of the United States as an incomplete project, an ideological contraption worthy of investment and repair. After the dust settles on this November election, it will be the job of critics and historians to sift through the work of this time, to tease out the motives and evaluate the production of our latter day Department of Pictorial Publicity.
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