During World War I, the U.S. government, contractors, and advertisers alike printed large quantities of posters in order to deliver a variety of propaganda messages to the general public. Because they were printed in large numbers, vintage war posters can be more affordable than you might expect.
Even though the United States would not enter World War I until 1917, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 prompted artist Fred Spear to create one of the most famous posters of that era. Titled "Enlist," the color lithograph features a mother cradling her child as both sink into the briny deeps—the call to action, ENLIST, is rendered on the poster in large, blocky letters.
Two years later, with the nation fully engaged in the European conflict, artist James Montgomery Flagg riffed on a famous British war-recruitment poster of the day to create his "I Want You For U.S. Army" poster. More than four million copies of the iconic image were reproduced during World War I alone, ensuring Flagg’s place in history as the creator of, and model for, the most famous likeness of Uncle Sam.
Another type of vintage World War I recruiting poster featured appeals to women, such as Edward Penfield’s "Yes sir, I am here!" which shows an earnest young woman standing at attention, saluting, and reporting for duty in the Motor Corps of America. The Christy Girl posters, named for their illustrator, Howard Chandler Christy, used smiling, mildly provocative women clad in men’s uniforms to encourage men to enlist in the Navy and Marines.
The vintage war posters of World War II expanded the appeals of patriotism and service to country. Posters encouraged Americans to plant Victory Gardens, to conserve fuel by walking to the store, and to buy war bonds ("Give War Bonds for Christmas" instructs a simple green-and-red, holly-leaf-decorated poster from the U.S. Government Printing Office).
J. Howard Miller’s "We Can Do It!" is perhaps the most famous vintage poster from that period. Published by Westinghouse, it features an illustration of a young female factory worker wearing a red-and-white polka dot headscarf and rolling up the sleeve of her blue work shirt. The woman in the poster is often referred as Rosie the Riveter, but the image was actually taken from a wire-service photograph of a 17-year-old named Geraldine Hoff.
Another category of World War II poster was unabashedly ideological and unapologetically tough in its depiction of the enemy. Karl Koehler and Victor Ancona won an award for thei...
If the Germans were depicted as evil madmen, the Japanese were portrayed as bucktoothed and inhuman drones. Flagg updated his World War I recruitment poster to create a hatless, muscular Uncle Sam, wrench in hand, with the words "JAP… You’re Next!" above his head. And Douglas Aircraft Company produced numerous unflattering caricatures of the Japanese to encourage its employees to conserve materials, lest they play into the hands of the enemy.
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