As I was out of the office this past Monday, Associate librarian Dr. Nicolae Harsanyi provided an orientation and presentation to FIU Professor Paul Reis’ students on the subject of propaganda posters. Although most of the posters in our collection are stored in a separate Works on Paper Department, we have a few small format posters and hundreds of broadsides in the library’s ephemera holdings. The ones Dr. Harsanyi pulled for the class visit date from the First and Second World Wars, and were designed for an American audience. Some of them aimed at recruiting African-American soldiers; others at vilifying the enemy, or encouraging women on the home front to serve as war workers in both traditional and non-traditional gender roles. Here is Dr. Harsanyi’s report:

Last Monday the library hosted a class on political propaganda taught by Professor Raul Reis, Dean of Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We began with a short orientation session about how to do research using the resources of the Wolfsonian library, either through remote (online) access to the collection holdings, or on location. Afterwards, the group of 25 students proceeded to a discussion of several posters and broadsides produced in the US during the two world wars of the twentieth century. The class was divided into six groups, each of which focused on a poster, and after 10 minutes of animated interaction, a representative from each group made a short presentation about the respective poster or broadside.



Once the US entered the First World War, a campaign to recruit African-Americans as soldiers debuted as well. Woodrow Wilson’s administration produced propaganda to convince African-American men to join the ranks.  The phrasing of the message at the bottom of the image “Colored man is no slacker” wanted to do away with the prevailing racial prejudice: the inclusion of a negative in the sentence indicates that the designers of the poster wanted to deny the unfavorable label people attached to African-Americans. (Slacker also had time-specific meaning of “draft dodger”). The students also remarked the unrealistic hue which envelopes the entire image, suggestive of the earthy color of the military uniforms.  In contrast, the realistic colors of the Flag under which the soldiers are marching clearly convey the patriotic mission that they are called to fulfill on the battlefields of Europe.



This poster takes us a little later in time than the volunteering moment of African-American troops.  In contrast to the dynamism of the previous material, the studied static composition allows feelings of recognition, gratitude, admiration to fill the whole image: it is the veneration of the family member (probably the father) who made the supreme sacrifice while in the army: his uniformed portrait features prominently above the mantelpiece, being flanked by the smaller portraits of George Washington (the father of the American republic) and Woodrow Wilson (the president who brought the US into the war).  The admiring gaze of the members of the family is unequivocally directed towards the portrait of the man who achieves the status of a hero, indicated by the two flags topping his portrait.  The entire scene takes place under the gaze of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, whose portrait, slightly larger than all the others, is placed higher on the wall and which seems to convey that without his bold legislation to free the slaves, such a situation could not have occurred.  The students also remarked the middle class interior as a sign of integration of this African-American family and the black doll clutched by the little girl as indicative of a certain industry that would manufacture toys for this demographic segment of society.

The library also holds books that document the participation of African-American army units in the First World War




Two broadsides issued to exhort the population to purchase war bonds during the Second World War resort to stirring images of destruction, atrocities, pillage, murder that accompany any war. Both posters deal with the suffering of the civilian population. Imagery shares equal space with text, doubling thus the channels whereby the message is conveyed.  The use of black and white inks in the production of these broadsides also emphasizes the symbolic character of the images.



In this broadside, the portrait of Hitler appears radiant, like a deity, as he patronizes over the vast scene of devastation caused by his armies (symbolized by the retreating military boot at the right end of the image). The gruesome character of this composition convincingly undermines the utterance attributed to Hitler “I am doing God’s work,” and creates an ironic tension between the missionary-like words of the Nazi leader and the abysmal reality. It reveals the hypocrisy of the enemy propaganda, and consequently, convinces the viewer (the American public in this case) of the righteousness of America’s cause.



There is a lot of detail to go into the depiction of the helmeted enemy soldier and the ominous expression on his face. The shadow of the body hanging from a noose suggests that the viewers were intended to imagine themselves in his place. To be even more convincing, the artist positioned the victim’s bare feet in the upper left corner in a position subliminally reminiscent of the ubiquitous representation of Jesus’s crucifixion. Thus the victim, identified in the accompanying narrative, as Anton Svoboda, acquires the dimension of a savior subliminally remembered from religious symbology and narrative.  Interestingly, the last name of this victim, Svoboda, has the meaning of “Freedom” in the Czech language. The exemplary execution of Anton Svoboda (the reason why his body is guarded by a soldier) echoes the destruction of the village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia, as a reprisal for the assassination of the Nazi governor of Bohemia, Reinhold Heydrich.

The last two posters the students focused on dealt with less disturbing images, the message of which were equally important for the war effort: women’s joining the labor force to help the war economy.



Besides the obvious message conveyed in this poster, one may also consider several details that were meant to emphasize that the call for women to leave their home and accept employment in various economic sectors would only cover the period of the war: the badge worn by the female worker reads “temporary,” the polish on her nails has not worn out.



This poster is an exemplification of the call launched by the previous poster: a female nurse tends to a male patient (supposedly a wounded military).

~ by "The Chief" on February 7, 2014.


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