The Museum of the City of New York presents Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York, a visual exploration of the United States’ participation in the Great War as told by the outpouring of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images created by New York artists to stir the American public to wartime loyalty, duty, and sacrifice. Digging deeper into the ideas behind the patriotic aesthetic, which mirror current events in familiar and perhaps disconcerting ways, the exhibition examines themes such as nationalism, fears surrounding immigration, and conflicts over freedom of expression that have emerged and reemerged in our national consciousness throughout American history, especially during times of crisis.
“Posters and Patriotism brings the story of America’s participation in World War I to life in dramatic fashion,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “In these striking posters and artworks – designed by New York City artists and meant to inspire the entire nation – we are reminded that manufactured patriotism and selling the public is nothing new, at least to New Yorkers. This exhibition helps us confront challenging themes that are part of our nation’s history and have never completely faded into the past.”
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, joining British, French, Belgian, Russian, and other Allied forces in the “Great War” and launching its first major intervention outside the Western Hemisphere. Overnight, the country abandoned neutrality in the European conflict, which had been raging since 1914, to pursue full-fledged mobilization of people, money, and resources. As the nation’s arts and media center, New York became the great incubator of propaganda asking Americans to embrace the war.
Artists accustomed to creating images for magazines, newspapers, and billboards now focused their skills on “selling the war.” New York illustrators working for the government crafted powerful posters meant to trigger an array of emotions, from love of country to fear, anger, or hatred. Yet these posters, along with other wartime images, encouraged support for a war that many Americans criticized or opposed—nowhere more vocally than in New York; a city, in effect, at war with itself. New Yorkers clashed in debates about ethnic and racial loyalties, pacifism, and the very meaning of patriotism, spawning impassioned art for a mass audience on all sides of the issues.
Urging allegiance to a conflict being fought over 3,000 miles from the United States, some 20 million copies of an estimated 2,500 posters flooded the country. These images—and the men and women behind them—played a major role in creating a modern American visual style. The war itself helped turn New York into the leading global city of the new century, the world’s crossroads of finance, advertising, and Jazz Age culture.
“At the heart of the story of WWI propaganda is New York City’s role as a hub for design and culture,” explains Donald Albrecht, Curator of Architecture and Design. “As the nation’s art and advertising center, the city made a natural home for the entire nation’s propaganda efforts. Not only does this connection give the national mood during the war a distinctly New York feel, it hints at how the nation’s history has so often been intertwined with that of the city.”
The war, and the materials created to inspire support for the war effort, also raised questions surrounding ethnic divides and gender inequality all across the nation, but especially in New York City. In 1914 President Wilson argued that the United States had to stay out of the Great War because “our mixed populations would wage war on each other” should America take sides. With U.S. entry in 1917, fears about the loyalties of the nation’s diverse immigrants stirred officials and others to action.
In New York, the country’s most multi-ethnic city, war bond drives appealed to immigrants’ love for their adopted home. But more stridently, posters also demanded that all New Yorkers prove that they were “100% American” by fully backing the Allies and disavowing any lingering loyalty to Germany or Austria-Hungary. Many posters attacked Germans directly, dwelling on German U-boat attacks, German war crimes against Belgian civilians, and caricatures of bloodthirsty “Huns” (a wartime nickname for Germans).
Yet many of the city’s communities also used posters to couch wartime patriotism in their own terms, demonstrating that love of country could reflect the diversity of a city like New York. The Jewish Welfare Board, National Catholic War Council, Czechoslovak Recruiting Office, and other groups urged “new” Americans to fight the war not only to prove their “Americanism” but also to express their ethnic and religious pride.
With 600,000 New York men joining the war effort, female New Yorkers drove ambulances, made war supplies, and filled traditionally male jobs for the war’s duration. Anticipating public unease over changing gender roles, New York poster artists who had fostered the image of the adventurous, confident “New Woman” in their pre-war work now adapted that image for the YWCA and other organizations. The war years led directly to increased voting rights for women, as the suffrage movement used women’s war service to help persuade male New Yorkers to give the state’s women the vote (1917) and Congress to enact the 19th Amendment (1919).
“The global conflict of World War I played out in miniature in the melting pot of New York,” added exhibition Co-Curator Steven H. Jaffe. “The stress of the war reaffirmed the city’s long role as a beacon for diversity in certain cases but in others magnified xenophobia and fear of ‘others’ since so many groups of people lived in such close proximity. These stories and others highlighted by Posters and Patriotism offer visualizations of ideas and issues that seem at first to be echoes of a distant past but upon further inspection remain arrestingly contemporary.”
Posters and Patriotism showcases over 60 examples from the Museum’s renowned World War I poster collection donated to the Museum by railroad executive and financier John W. Campbell (1880-1957) in 1943, most exhibited for the first time, as well as the work of defiant artists in such colorful publications as The Masses, The Fatherland, and Mother Earth.
Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York is sponsored by Robert Dinan Memorial Fund, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, The French Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale, Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation, the General Delegation of the Government of Flanders to the USA, Mark and Maura Resnick, and Joan Barenholtz.