2017 is the 100th anniversary of the U.S.‘s entry into World War I. To commemorate this event, the Museum of the City of New York has organized Posters and Patriotism: Selling WW1 to New York, an exhibit of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images made in war-time New York.
When war broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson had declared that the U.S. should remain “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” But the tide began to turn, especially after the Lusitania was sunk, claiming the lives of 128 Americans, and the U.S. joined the war on April 6, 1917.
While the exhibit focuses on posters, it also shows how every available means – print, music, film, lectures, and performance—were used to publicize, popularize, and gain support for the U.S.’s entry into the conflict, and how dissenting voices also employed these media.
In the early 20th century, there was a strong pacifist movement in the U.S. New York City mirrored the dissent and divisions in the American population, which can be seen in a display in the center of the room with black and white photos of various anti-war rallies, including the 1914 Women’s Peace Parade on 5th Avenue.
There are also displays with socialist and anarchist publications like The Masses, and Bull, as well as Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth – all three publications were banned from the U.S. mail, and their editors were tried under the Espionage Act. The exhibit clearly shows the whiplash in the American public’s sentiments towards the war, and the favorable turn in opinion was aided by anti-sedition laws which helped enforce patriotic loyalty. During the war years, over 1,000 people in the U.S. were convicted of anti-draft activity.
You’ll also find illustrated sheet music published for people with pianos at home – they were still fairly common in American households – showing how music reflected the shifting American opinions towards the war, from neutrality to patriotic involvement, and capturing the conflicted feelings of parents whose children went overseas, in songs such as I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier Boy. As U.S. troops headed overseas, Tin Pan Alley composers led the charge with gusto – George M. Cohan’s Over There is from this era . Other songs, such as To Hell with Germany by Noble Sissle were widely disseminated, and many of Irving Berlin’s songs echoed that sentiment.
Once the U.S. entered the conflict, dissenting voices were shut out, as censorship was enforced during the war. Because New York City was the center of advertising and media, the U.S. Department of War housed its Division of Pictorial Publicity (DPP) here to sell the wary American public on supporting the US War effort. Many artists eagerly jumped on board: the DPP was headed by none other than Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girls;” he and James Montgomery Flagg (creator of Uncle Sam) helped found ‘the Vigilantes,” a group of artists and writers using their talents to promote patriotism, and exhorting Americans to serve in combat, buy bonds to finance the war, and conserve food, clothing and energy so these resources could be sent overseas.
The posters in this exhibit clearly reflect their creators training, revealing their backgrounds as either fine artists or the graphic artists found in the commercial (advertising) art world.
Recruitment posters aimed their message at men: by enlisting in the armed forces, they would demonstrate their patriotism and their “manly” outrage at German war crimes; other posters appealed to potential enlistees’ sense of adventure, while others played on their guilt. Their efforts were wildly successful – the Army swelled from 200,000 recruits to 4,000,000!
The war was sold as defending France and Belgium – apparently Americans didn’t harbor favorable feelings towards the British, even though the Revolutionary War had ended 140 years earlier, but they remembered the assistance Lafayette and his compatriots gave the fledgling republic. Anti-German sentiment ran high, with posters, pamphlets and children’s books exhorting Americans to take up the fight against “The Hun”.
Americans were asked to make sacrifices, even being encouraged to grow their own food, so more could be sent overseas, and in 1918, Daylight Savings Time was introduced as a fuel conservation measure. The Museum’s blog post on the Civilian war effort in the two world wars gives you a very good idea of how ordinary men and women contributed to the effort.
Because men were fighting in Europe, women went to work in large numbers outside the house: not only in factories and firms in the US, but also as ambulance drivers and nurses on the front, fueling their demands for equal rights. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that American women were granted the right to vote.
The war effort was financed by the sale of Liberty Bonds – by the end of the war, Americans had loaned over $17 billion to their government. Buying bonds was seen as a sign of loyalty, and refusal was met with suspicion.
Immigrants were exhorted to simultaneously demonstrate their pride in their origins and in their new country by enlisting in the war effort. Nowhere was this effort more successful than in Hollywood – many in the industry were immigrants who showed their patriotism by creating films that fueled the public’s hatred of Germany and pumped up their patriotic fervor. At the end of the exhibit there’s a screen showing selections from The Bond, a 1918 film featuring Charlie Chaplin.
Jazz also became popular, personified in the bandleader James Reese Europe, who led the marching band of the Harlem Hell Fighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit (Noble Sissle was also a member) bringing jazz to troops in France and England. The Harlem Hell Fighters emerged from the war with one of the most stellar combat records of any Army unit. However, when they returned home, they found that the same old racism prevailed. 1919 brought the Red Summer, when cities all across the U.S., particularly in the Jim Crow South, erupted, with whites attacking and killing blacks over employment and housing.
And when the war was over …
Many of the wartime poster artists went on to become successful commercial and journalistic illustrators. New York City became America’s financial and cultural hub in the Roaring 20’s. The US began to return to its isolationist stance; however, the government continued to look for spies, especially among the foreign-born in New York. The exhibit has a map depicting NYC’s immigrant neighborhoods, prepared by US Army Officer John B. Trevor for the Lusk Committee’s investigation of “subversives.” The Cold War was beginning.
Nonetheless, the idea of globalization started to take hold, as people from all over the world met each other serving on the front. As the song goes, “How ‘ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree).” The League of Nations was founded after the war, and even though it folded after several years, its successor, the United Nations continues to this day.
Many of the issues the country had grappled with at the turn of the century – freedom of speech, immigration, espionage, race relations – continue to dominate public discourse today, making this exhibit exceptionally relevant.
On August 24th the Museum is hosting an event associated with this exhibit, Hot Jazz Moonlight Social with the Gotham Kings and jazz historian Ricky Riccardi at 6:00.
The exhibit continues until October 9th. But don’t wait until then to see it.
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street