The Poster's Place in Wartime

During the First World War, posters were the primary form of public communication; but by 1940 posters had been supplanted by radio, movies, and billboards. Why then did government and private industry turn to posters to rally the public in World War II?

First, people would encounter posters in places that other media couldn't reach--schools, factories, offices, store windows, and other places outside the scope of paid advertising. Second, posters had democratic appeal--they could be made by anyone; they could be seen by all. Both medium and message spoke of democracy, which made posters ideal for expressing American war aims: why we fight, what we fight for. For example, artist John C. Atherton's first-prize poster for Defense Bonds was painted on a 48-foot billboard at one of New York's busiest street corners, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, July 1941.

To tap the creative energies of American artists, the Museum of Modern Art organized a National Defense Poster Competition in 1941. The contest was sponsored by the museum and two of the government's largest users of posters, the Army Air Corps and the Treasury Department. First prize in the Defense Bond category was won by John C. Atherton, a prominent commercial artist. Atherton's winning design--showing the factory as the front line of decisive action -- was echoed in other posters as America entered the war after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

"Buy a Share in America"
(Artist: John C. Atherton, U.S. Treasury, 1941.
Poster 303735.37, 20" x 28" 91-16228.
Gift of the Peabody Museum)

The Treasury Department financed the war through the sale of bonds and stamps to the public. War bond posters called upon all citizens to share in "ownership" of the war. This poster depicts one of the elite corps of airmen trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

"Keep Us Flying!"
(U.S. Treasury, 1943 Poster 1985.
0776.04, 20" x 28" 91-16230.
Gift of Leon A. Watkins.)

In the late 1930s, artists of the government - sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) pioneered silk- screen techniques that simplified the serial production of colorful poster images. The WPA handbook How to Make and Reproduce Posters (1943) promoted poster-making as a democratic activity, declaring "Anyone can make a poster."

"Train to Be a Nurse's Aide"
(New York City WPA War Service, 1942.
Subway card, 21" x 11" 90-3541, 163786.08)

"Remember Pearl Harbor / Purl Harder"
(New York City WPA War Service, 1942
Poster, 163786.02, 14" x 22 1/4", 90-3535.
Gift of New York City WPA War Service.)

Posters encouraged all citizens to participate in the war effort in every possible way -- growing, conserving, saving, Tproducing.

"Grow it Yourself"
(Artist: Herbert Bayer, Rural Electrification Administration,
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1942.
Poster, 163786.01, 31" x 21 1/8", 90-3534.
Gift of New York City WPA War Service.)

[ Previous Page | Return to VICTORY Exhibit Main Page | Next Page ]