Unforgettable World War I Posters

ZEICHNET 4. KRIEGSANLEIHE [Subscribe to the 4th War Loan], ca. 1917. Heinrich Lefler (1863-1919). Austria-Hungary, lithograph on paper, 45” x 33¾”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The double-headed black eagle has been the omnipresent emblem of Austria’s royal families for centuries. During World War I, this figure also symbolized the united Austrian-Hungarian Empire on everything from the imperial coat of arms to propaganda art. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

ZEICHNET 4. KRIEGSANLEIHE [Subscribe to the 4th War Loan], ca. 1917. Heinrich Lefler (1863-1919). Austria-Hungary, lithograph on paper, 45” x 33¾”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The double-headed black eagle has been the omnipresent emblem of Austria’s royal families for centuries. During World War I, this figure also symbolized the united Austrian-Hungarian Empire on everything from the imperial coat of arms to propaganda art. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

For people today, the mention of World War I posters may conjure up charged images promoting patriotic messages: think Uncle Sam pointing forcefully in I Want You for the U.S. Army or a coquette in sailor’s uniform flirting with her male audience to get them to enlist in Gee! I Wish I Were a Man! I’d Join the U.S. Navy.

During the war, these posters captivated viewers and compelled citizens to take action. Every major combatant nation—and many smaller countries—created them. But not until recently could the Library’s visual materials collection illustrate a more global sampling of propaganda art from World War I.

Thanks to generous support from Huntington Overseer Jay T. Last, we have strengthened our holdings by acquiring 39 significant works, many of which fill international gaps in our World War I poster collection. The list includes posters from Austria-Hungary, Cuba, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. We also added U.S.-related posters that appealed to immigrants from Czechoslovakia and Greece in their native languages. One especially unusual work targeted citizens from China who worked in the Philippines, then an American colony. Why a veteran of World War I passionately collected these posters adds to their rich history.

ΖΗΤΗΣΑΤΕ ΤΑ ΕΝΤΟΚΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΙΑ 4½ KAI 5% [Ask for Treasury Bills 4½ to 5%], ca. 1917. Unknown artist. United States, lithograph on paper, 21¾” x 30¼”. Gift of Jay T. Last. A winged classical goddess grabs the viewer’s attention as she implores her compatriots to buy into the cause on this poster distributed to Greek-American communities in the United States. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

ΖΗΤΗΣΑΤΕ ΤΑ ΕΝΤΟΚΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΙΑ 4½ KAI 5% [Ask for Treasury Bills 4½ to 5%], ca. 1917. Unknown artist. United States, lithograph on paper, 21¾” x 30¼”. Gift of Jay T. Last. A winged classical goddess grabs the viewer’s attention as she implores her compatriots to buy into the cause on this poster distributed to Greek-American communities in the United States. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In 1915, Brooklyn-born Edward H. McCrahon showed his colors for the Allied cause by joining the French Army as an ambulance driver. When America declared war against Germany in 1917, McCrahon was released from service so that he could enlist in the U.S. Army, in which he rose to the rank of colonel.

McCrahon never forgot his rousing reaction to the war posters he first saw while stationed in France. He quickly amassed more than 2,000 international examples by the mid-1930s, receiving accolades in newspapers and magazines for having the most extensive collection of its kind. Public recognition continued to grow as McCrahon exhibited his collection widely at American schools, libraries, galleries, universities, and veterans’ organizations. Each venue highlighted the posters as a touring memorial to all who had participated or perished in the war.

KDOJSTE BOZI BOJOVNICI / C.S. ARMADA VE FRANCII [Those Who Are God’s Warriors / Czechoslovak Army in France], ca. 1918. Vojtěch Preissig (1873-1944). United States, lithograph on paper, 30” x 21¼”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The Czechoslovak Recruiting Office in New York City distributed this poster urging Czech and Slovak volunteers living in the United States to join up. It was one of a series designed by the artist and printed at the center he directed, The School of Printing and Graphic Arts of Wentworth Institute in Boston. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

KDOJSTE BOZI BOJOVNICI / C.S. ARMADA VE FRANCII [Those Who Are God’s Warriors / Czechoslovak Army in France], ca. 1918. Vojtěch Preissig (1873-1944). United States, lithograph on paper, 30” x 21¼”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The Czechoslovak Recruiting Office in New York City distributed this poster urging Czech and Slovak volunteers living in the United States to join up. It was one of a series designed by the artist and printed at the center he directed, The School of Printing and Graphic Arts of Wentworth Institute in Boston. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

One fascinating aspect of these newly acquired posters: the variety of languages they employed to convince civilians to join up, buy in, help the needy, and wave the flag. Such linguistic diversity reminds us how global this conflict really was, engaging more than 100 nations across six continents. At the same time, these posters help to illustrate how ethnically diverse a country like the United States was during the early 1900s, when its government printed huge quantities of propaganda in many languages, including Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, Yiddish, Italian, Polish, and Slovak. This outpouring appealed to immigrant communities in cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York.

With the addition of these 39 posters, The Huntington is becoming a leading repository for early 20th-century propaganda art. Our growing archive of approximately 750 works now represents a more complete picture of a global war fought not only by soldiers on the battlefield and civilians on the home front, but also by the artists who designed these unforgettable posters.

Related content on Verso:
The Posters to End All Wars (July 28, 2014)

David Mihaly is the Jay T. Last Curator of Graphic Arts and Social History at The Huntington.

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