Posters from World War I

Following American entry into World War I, the United States government faced the immediate problem of how to finance the massive buildup in the armed forces that began in spring 1917. The national debt already stood at approximately $3,500,000,000, and Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo realized that more borrowing would be required. Government bonds could provide the money if the public bought them, but would they? President Woodrow Wilson had won a second term in office based on his promise to keep the U.S. out of the war, then reversed course following the explosive revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917. Still, significant numbers of Americans, especially those of German descent, preferred to remain neutral rather than become embroiled in the European war. To motivate Americans to lend their financial support to the war effort, McAdoo instituted the Liberty Loan Bond drives. From 1917-1919, the government issued five series of war bonds, including one after the armistice was signed, that raised a total of $17,000,000,000.

Though successful in the end, the initial response to the Liberty Loans was tepid. McAdoo determined that a strong advertising campaign was needed, so he hired some of the most popular illustrators of the day to make posters that urged Americans to buy bonds out of a sense of patriotic duty. These posters quickly sprung up on street corners, theaters, shop windows, recruiting offices, and anywhere else the public was likely to see them.

The Naval War College Museum recently received a donation of twenty-six WWI posters, a few of which can be seen in our new exhibit about the Navy in the First World War. Prior to their arrival at the museum, the posters were kept in storage almost continuously after being produced. Since they were rarely exposed to sunlight, the colors on the posters remain bright and vibrant. Below are three examples from this amazing collection.

Gift of Jenifer Burckett-Picker
Machine guns saw widespread use in the trenches along the front lines of France and Belgium. Artist Casper Emerson Jr. produced this poster in which normal machine gun bullets have been substituted with war savings bonds. The image drove home the point that bond sales provided the money needed to keep soldiers supplied with ammunition.

Gift of Jenifer Burckett-Picker
John W. Norton created this poster for the Third Liberty Loan dive which began on April 5, 1918. The image references the war crimes that German soldiers were accused of committing during their occupation of Belgium. While there was never any real threat of Germany invading the United States, the danger felt real to Americans who kept up with war stories in the newspapers.

Gift of Jenifer Burckett-Picker
The girl in this poster is clutching a liberty loan bond. The Department of the Treasury produced the poster, though the artist is unknown.

Rob Doane
Naval War College Museum


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