1. Introduction

Publicity Photo of Fatty Arbuckle, 1917.

Through posters, the United States government attempted to capture the public's attention during World Wars I and II as it sought public support and a cooperative homefront willing to put the needs of the nation before their own.

“I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.”

— George Creel, Chairman of the Committee for Public Information, in his World War I memoir, How We Advertised America. 1

While decorative at times, the mass-produced poster was a primary form of one-way communication in the late 1800's and early 1900s — before radio and television guaranteed regular contact with the public. Like TV and radio, posters conveyed messages intended for a mass audience. They were designed to be easy to understand and grab attention.

“All you gentlemen have to do is to induce the American people to change their ways of living — that's all.”

— John S. Pardee, chief of the Publications Section of the Food Administration, addressing State Educational Directors, with irony, 1917. 2

The urgent circumstances of war required homefront citizens to adjust their daily, peace-time routines, yet public officials understood that inducing behavior change would not be easy. They relied on massive publicity efforts, including printed posters, to reach the public with wartime messages.

Wartime posters in this collection conveyed messages about the vital need for food conservation, rationed goods, meatless and wheatless days, home gardening and canning.

For farmers, who performed a distinct role on the homefront, posters called attention to the need for increased agricultural output and proper storage methods of surplus grain. Posters also instructed farmers to grow crops in their specific regions to best serve a nation at war.

In addition to these wartime subjects, many of the posters presage food-focused conversations taking place in our culture today. Posters created nearly a century ago suggested food's global significance, recommended eating locally and encouraged personally responsible consumption.

In the WWI sections, rarely seen state-produced posters from 1917 show a nation with unique agricultural regions and creative variations on other food messages. Government entities borrowed techniques of advertising to send their messages to a mass audience. Then during WWII, after the rise of the advertising industry in the 1920s and 30s, the Advertising Council worked directly with the government to help influence homefront consumption behaviors and attitudes.

Mass communication techniques, made visible by the posters, revealed the agendas of the message senders and their assumptions about soldiers, citizens, housewives and farmers, and how these populations related to the strategically important wartime food supply. The poster collection reflects the interdependent relationship between government, private businesses and citizen-consumers.

This exhibit of posters from the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library asks,

  • What did these urgent war messages about food look like?
  • What type of homefront behaviors required modification?
  • What do the messages tell us about the needs of a government in a time of war and its relationship to homefront populations and private businesses?

In addition, by displaying posters from two different wars, this exhibit encourages us to compare and contrast of wartime messages, poster styles and historical contexts.

  • What changed in the posters from two time periods?
  • In what ways did they stay the same?

Many illustrations and messages that we associate with the great world wars are famous because of posters. By revisiting some of the images and messages disseminated at home during both wars, visitors to this exhibit can ask, Are these the wartime images and messages we “remember?”

Image Gallery | Next Section