Poster propaganda: Exhibit displays America's messages during World Wars

Before pop-up ads on computers or commercials on TVs, the key tools in getting information out to as many people as possible were newspapers, newsreels and radio spots.

Poster urging people to buy war bonds
During World War II, the U.S. government used posters to communicate with the public. The above poster was circulated during World War II, urging people to buy war bonds. Special to The Forum

Before pop-up ads on computers or commercials on TVs, the key tools in getting information out to as many people as possible were newspapers, newsreels and radio spots.

Another key means of communication were posters. Inexpensive to mass-produce in bold colors with eye-catching imagery and statements, posters were displayed inside busy buildings like post offices or court houses or plastered outside - and in the elements - on poles or fences.

More than 50 fliers from World Wars I and II have been saved, framed and preserved by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in Bismarck. The images are collected in two touring exhibits, "Liberty Loan Posters" and "World War II Posters," both on display at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County in Moorhead through May.

After the show ends here, the art will be packed away and retired, said Scott Schaffnit, outreach program coordinator for the State Historical Society. The posters have been circulating for more than two decades.

"Oh my golly," Schaffnit said when asked how the displays have been received. "They've been pretty well booked solid since 2008."


The popularity of the shows is understandable considering that the material was designed to attract the eyes of passers-by. Combining attention-getting imagery with provocative text, the posters still make people stop and take notice even if the message is dated.

"Basically, these are propaganda posters," Schaffnit said.

The show is split into two parts with the Victory Loans works, in gold frames, displayed on the one side of the exhibit and the World War II material, in silver frames, on the other.

Even further, the display is grouped in themes, explains Markus Krueger, visitors' service coordinator at the HCSCC.

One of the first images shows a woman in a white dress holding an American flag in one hand and standing in front of charging troops. Howard Chandler Christy's image, "Fight or Buy Bonds ... Third Liberty Loan," is an homage to Eugene Delacroix's 1830 depiction of the French Revolution, "Liberty Leading the People."

Liberty Loans were the precursor to war bonds, bringing in $21.5 billion to the Treasury Department. North Dakotans pledged $66 million to the program, a sign accompanying the show states.

Christy wasn't the only illustrator to use a recognizable image in his poster work.

"Uncle Sam looks a lot like Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Krueger said, looking at "I'm Counting on You ... Don't Discuss: Troop movements. Ship Sailings. War Equipment."


That piece is one of five hung together that warned citizens to be discreet and not to discuss anything that may tip spies off to American troop activities. That topic was a common one in World War II, which is when the phrase "loose lips sink ships" came to be.

One of the most evocative is Heyman Wesley's 1943 piece "... because someone talked!" It depicts a cocker spaniel resting its head on a sailor's collar while a gold star on a service flag hangs in the background. The gold star signified a family member had died in war.

Posters played on other feelings like pride and duty.

One at the entrance to the exhibit shows a World War I American soldier stepping over a fallen opponent.

"Come on!" it states. "Buy more liberty bonds."

"I work in a museum; I should be able to come up with something better than 'badass,' " Krueger said. "But this is badass!"

The main feeling the posters appealed to was fear. One depicts a Nazi slamming a knife through a Bible ("This is the Enemy") while two from World War I depict Germans creeping from the dark, referring to the attacker as "Huns," a comparison to the ruthless warlord Attila.

"They wanted to paint them as barbarian invaders from the east," Krueger said.


The attacks on Germans were met with mixed emotions in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Schaffnit said many German North Dakotans lobbied against both wars.

"There were so many Germans here," he said.

Krueger said it's important to remember that in the 1920 census, 19 percent of people in Clay County were immigrants, and about 50 percent were the children of immigrants.

"There was such a large anti-immigration sense at the time that it was not good to be German," he said.

Still, some posters appealed to the new Americans of the time. One poster depicts an immigrant family, just off the boat with the flag in the background.

"Remember the flag of Liberty ... Support it."

While these posters will be packed away after returning to Bismarck, Schaffnit said a new show, "Seeds of Victory," which focuses on stateside war efforts like victory gardens, opens this weekend in the Peace Garden.


But don't look for the show to come to the area soon; it is already booked for other shows into next year.

If you go

  • What: "Liberty Loan Posters" and "World War II Posters"
  • When: On display through May 31
  • Where: Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, 202 1st Ave. N., Moorhead
  • Info: Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students, $5 for children, free for children ages 5 and younger. The exhibit will be free to veterans May 29-31, Memorial Day. (218) 299-5511.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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