The iconic “I Want You For U.S. Army” image of Uncle Sam is one of the first things visitors see upon entering “Seeds of Victory: Posters of the Great War” at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
With his index finger pointed straight at the viewer, it’s undeniably the best known picture of Uncle Sam ever produced. And it was also one part of the most effective government-message campaigns ever waged.
The poster is one of 60 in the show which opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 7. The posters range from simple messages to evocative works of art. And they all served a purpose.
“It was, for the first time, about changing the behavior of the American people,” said Redmond Barnett, the curator of the show. “They were using all the tools of modern propaganda at their disposal,” he said.
The posters belong to Jim and Sheron Givan of Yakima. The exhibit is just a small part of the couple’s much larger all-original collection of World War I and II posters.
“We started out collecting Marine recruitment posters and digressed badly,” Jim Givan said. He began with six posters in the 1950s while in the Marines himself. “I hauled them around for years because I didn’t know what to do with them.”
Originally, the posters on exhibit in Tacoma were produced by the Committee on Public Information during what would later be called World War I. They were displayed in store windows, government offices and on street corners.
By the 1990s, the collection had become a serious hobby for the Givans, who now acquire posters for both their historical and artistic value. Jim Givan acknowledges that what constitutes propaganda is in the eye of the beholder.
“I don’t call any of the World War I posters propaganda because they all have a message.” His definition of propaganda does not include posters with type.
The collection represents a significant investment for the Givans. Though four million Uncle Sam posters were produced, they are now so scarce they fetch up to $20,000. The average World War I poster sells for $1,500, Givan said. He does not intend to sell any.
“I buy, I preserve, I display. I don’t sell. I want them to last another 100 years,” Givan said.
Another show featuring 75 of the Givans’ posters, these from World War II, will open in November at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon.
While many of the World War I posters were intended to lure recruits to fight in France – where the majority ofAmericans were sent, most of the posters sought to change attitudes and behavior – to free up resources to fight the war or support U.S. allies.
Some posters urged consumers to eat more fish, fruit and corn and less wheat, meat, sugar and fats. What in today’s context resembles a health campaign, the goal during the war was to divert high-calorie food to “the Army and our associates.” One poster, written in Yiddish, reads “Food Will Win the War.”
Some of the era’s most prominent artists, James Montgomery Flagg, who created the Uncle Sam image, and Howard Chandler Christy, made art for the posters. Christy’s “Gee!! I Wish I Were A Man” 1918 poster of a young woman in a Navy uniform is in the show.
One poster in the show urges people to financially support the war. It has an “Honor Roll” of 14 names clearly intended to be culturally inclusive. Family names include Du Bois, O’Brien, Pappandrikopolous, Villotto, Gonzales – all under the title “Americans All.” Noticeably absent are any names even remotely German.
Other poster shows an angry young man pulling off his coat, ready to fight. At his feet is a newspaper with the headline, “Huns kill women and children.” Huns referred to German soldiers.
“(War propaganda’s) primary purpose is to make the enemy seem inhuman,” said Kimberly Ketcham, the museum’s marketing and communications director. “What makes propaganda so effective is that it taps into emotion.”
Those emotions often are fear, pride, honor and duty. Several posters urge non-military folks to do their part in the war effort.
“They are workers being told to work harder because, ‘You are vital to the war’,” Barnett said.
The propaganda presumably worked. Washington resident Leona Helm volunteered with the Red Cross overseas. In a 1918 letter back home, also on display, she called German prisoners, “…more like animals than men…They are so ugly.”
There’s a small bit of ephemera in the show. Two military themed flags with “Parkland” printed on them are in a case. The Pierce County community received the flags because residents bought war bonds, then called liberty bonds.
Indeed, liberty bonds were a large part of the government’s propaganda machine. By the war’s end Americans had purchased bonds worth $346 billion in 2014 dollars. Besides funding the war they served another economic purpose.
“You didn’t have the money to spend on something else and that kept inflation down,” Barnett said.
A soundtrack of 20 period songs plays in the exhibit, including the iconic 1917 “Over there” by George M. Cohan.
The WSHM’s STQRY app, for mobile devices, has content for the show. After downloading, the app shows exhibit-related content.
To today’s sophisticated populace, the posters in this show might seem simplistic and obvious. But that doesn’t mean the government has given up on behavior-modifying messaging. Just ask the mascotinvented during World War II to urge Americans to prevent forest fires: Smokey Bear.