WWII posters taught American patriotism
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
On the American home front in World War II, being a patriot meant, among other things, buying bonds ("Buy A Share of America!"), farming your own vegetables ("Grow It Yourself!") and working tirelessly, be it in the factory ("Shootin' the Bull Ain't Shootin' Nazis!") or in the home ("Remember Pearl Harbor ... Purl Harder!").
Patriotism, expressed as personal responsibility and sacrifice, was the galvanizing appeal behind millions of posters that were produced and distributed by the government and private industry in an effort to make all Americans feel as though they were a part of the war effort.
The carefully designed messages also served to tamp inflamed labor tensions, bolster big business and reinforce mainstream values, and that was no unintended consequence.
"Produce For Victory: Posters on the American Home Front, 1941-1945," a traveling exhibit in Hawai'i on loan from the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street project, examines how these inexpensive, high-impact posters worked to rally a nation in the midst of war. (See box for dates and locations.)
It's a compact show, but the exhibit illustrates the various tacks the U.S. Office of War Information, New York's Works Progress Administration and others took to promote unity in thought and action, from a heroic illustration of a skyward-looking airman urging "Keep us flying! Buy war bonds," to the drawing of man driving a car with an apparitional Adolph Hitler in his passenger seat. The latter piece, intended to promote carpooling, bears the shaming message "When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!"
The emphasis on civic and patriotic responsibility is also apparent in other pieces, including a "Warplane Spotters Manual" and a meal planning guide (designed to help homemakers make do with rationed goods) that features "Food Cakes for Freedom!" and "Wartime Cakes and Pastries."
"Even though a lot of time has elapsed and much has changed in society, there is still something in these (posters) that can make an emotional impression on you," says DeSoto Brown, the historian, author and collections manager at the Bishop Museum archives who'll be giving a talk about wartime propaganda and patriotism tomorrow at Ali'iolani Hale. "They can seem ludicrous and strange, and yet the emotional appeal can still be quite strong."
While it might be tempting to draw comparisons between the World War II propaganda and current efforts to win public support for the war in Iraq, Brown said the our domestic circumstances are not the same.
"The home front experience is very different," he said. "There is no reduction in the status of living, none of the rationing or shortages that were commonplace in World War II.
"The existence of the country is not dependent on people working at defense jobs."
Still, Brown said that there is much to learn and appreciate about the propaganda posters.
Under more similar conditions, he said, the same sort of emotional appeals to shared ideals could still work today.
Artwork or ads?
The images were ubiquitous throughout the war years. One example might be John Atherton's first-prize entry in the Museum of Modern Art's Defense Poster Contest. It shows two hands shaking, one with a swatch of American flag superimposed where a shirt cuff might be, with a background of smokestacks. Emblazoned with "Buy a Share in America," a pitch for bonds and stamps, the piece was a 48-foot billboard on New York's 42nd Street at 5th Avenue.
The exhibit highlights the rift that occurred between artists and advertising people who worked for the Office of War Information, which controlled the messages and imagery of the posters and other propaganda.
The art faction believed that the posters should serve as a sort of "war art," with stylized images and symbolism conveying serious messages.
The other faction of writers and designers, many of them recruited from advertising agencies, thought the posters should be more literal and direct, in the style of popular ads.
Two facing displays show the rift.
On one side, a poster designed by noted jazz illustrator David Stone Martin shows three arms reaching upward — a man's arm holding a pipe wrench, another man's arm holding a rifle, and a woman's arm holding a smaller double open wrench. The words underneath read, "Strong in the strength of the Lord we who fight in the people's cause will never stop until that cause is won."
On the other side, a Rockwell-esque illustration shows a mother and daughter, both wearing frilly aprons and smiling widely, canning vegetables together. The girl's head is turned to her mother and a caption reads, "We'll have lots to eat this winter, won't we, Mother?"
As the exhibit explains, the ad men eventually won. Under their influence, the Office of War Information coordinated a campaign of magazine and radio ads, along with the posters.
COUNTRY, AND COMPANY
The United States' entry into World War II followed a period of violent labor disputes in the 1930s. The national call for unity and cooperation during wartime provided an opportunity for businesses to quell worker unrest, in the name of patriotism.
As the exhibit notes, wartime demands gave businesses justification for demanding more productivity. During this period, union rules were suspended and traditional work patterns altered.
Businesses increasingly turned to propaganda posters to make these concessions digestible to its workers, directing their loyalty not to the company, but to the country.
One poster features the exhortation "More, More, More, More, More Production"; factories, refineries and a train provide the backdrop. Another shows a cartoon Hitler presenting a medal to a lazy American worker: "Thanks for loafing, Pal!"
Many of the labor-related posters encouraged cooperation between management, unions and individual workers.
Some also acknowledged the increased presence of women in U.S. factories, depicting empowered yet still glamorous women on the job — "fashion models in denim."
Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, a figure that would later be reborn as a 1970s feminist icon, is reinterpreted in several posters, encouraging women to fill the void in the workplace left by men in service.
Yet, as the exhibit's text comments, there was a limit to female empowerment, as evidenced by the poster "Any Questions About Your Work? Ask Your Supervisor," which shows an amiable white male supervisor gesturing openly with one hand.
Many of the posters produced during World War II operated on the assumption of a shared set of values and ideals reflecting the white, Christian, middle-class majority. This vision was picked up on by the Sheldon-Claire Co. in a series of advertisements with the theme "This is America ..."
One poster included in the exhibit captures the essence of the campaign: "This is America ... where the family is a sacred institution. Where children love, honor and respect their parents ... where a man's home is his castle. This is your America."
The idealized images often clashed with the reality of everyday life.
As Toni Han Palermo, program specialist for the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center, notes, the disconnect was even more pronounced in Hawai'i, which was under martial law during the war.
Another exhibit produced by the Judicial History Center, "Hawai'i Under Martial Law, 1941-1944," adjoins the Smithsonian exhibit and helps provide some local context to the times.
The martial law exhibit offers insight into the everyday lives of island residents. They were forced to deal with hardships including food rationing, nightmarish bureaucracies, suppression of cultural practices and ethnic discrimination. For example, Americans of Japanese ancestry working at Pearl Harbor had to wear black-bordered badges indicating their ethnic origin. Letters censored or confiscated by the government are on display.
National propaganda posters were sometimes translated into Japanese, Chinese and Filipino. Other posters urged Japanese-Americans to "Speak English" as a way of earning trust and demonstrating their loyalty to the U.S.
Tomorrow, the program "Propaganda v. Patriotism" will feature local speakers on the topic.
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.