WOMEN AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR: SOME ARTIFACTS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU LIBRARY COLLECTION

Over the course of the last week, thirty-six Florida International University students enrolled in my War & Society history class carpooled and came in three separate groups for a library orientation and presentation of materials related to the propaganda of the First World War. The Wolfsonian holds an incredible (and growing) collection of original artwork, rare books and periodicals, and historical ephemera dating from the war years, and will be opening a major exhibition, Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture, on two floors of the museum this coming November.

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 http://www.wolfsonian.org/explore/exhibitions/myth-and-machine-first-world-war-visual-culture

My intention in bringing the students to the museum was to provide them with the opportunity to see some of the rare materials in person, and to work with them to deconstruct the visual messages imbedded in propaganda. Laid out on the tables was a wide range of ephemeral items that included original drawings and a water-color; caricatures and cartoons; broadsides; oversized portfolios; cut-out designs for “jumping jacks” puppets; propaganda books and pamphlets aimed at young and adult audiences; vintage postcards; and musical scores.

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While we looked at a wide variety of propaganda produced by nearly all of the protagonists involved in the war, towards the latter part of the class meeting we focused more exclusively on illustrated periodicals and sheet music covers using imagery of women in the context of the Great War.

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As the class will soon be reading Celia Malone Kingsbury’s For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front, I hoped to prepare the students for the ideas embedded in that book by having them examine similarly gender-themed materials held in our own collection.

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Women have for centuries been depicted as the hapless and helpless “victims” of war. First World War propaganda was no different in conjuring up imagery designed to instill hatred for bestial “rapists” and to encourage young men to assume their “manly” duties to protect the “fairer sex” by enlisting and defeating the enemy.

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The class looked closely at some of the artwork of Italian artist, illustrator, and costume designer, Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949). During the war, Brunelleschi contributed illustrations to La Tradotta, a weekly newspaper published for the Italian 3rd Army.

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In addition to a bound edition of the periodical, the Wolfsonian library also holds a series of six Brunelleschi-illustrated postcards published by La Tradotta celebrating women’s war work. Italian men were generally very socially conservative in this period, and most undoubtedly viewed women assuming jobs traditionally held by men with ambivalent feelings. The images of gorgeously attired women serving as porters, postmen, street sweepers, and coach and trolley conductors in the postcards were designed to reassure soldiers fighting at the front that their wives and sweethearts were in no way losing their femininity in temporarily taking on these jobs. The popular cards also served as “pin-up” art for lonely soldiers who might be spending years on the front lines deprived of female companionship.

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I was particularly intrigued by Brunelleschi’s depiction of a female barber.

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The woman on the postcard is pictured wearing an elegant gown as she sharpens a straight razor. (Shaving took on great importance during the war as soldiers on the front needed to don gas masks!) The expression on the face of the lathered-up man in the barber’s chair seen in the shop mirror is one of extreme terror. The humorous card was doubtlessly designed to capture the sense of male anxiety in the first decades of the twentieth century. Not only had a feminist and militant suffragette movement arisen demanding the right to vote, but with so many men diverted to the front lines in the war years, women were being encouraged to “take over” their jobs on the home front. The male figure in the card appears to be suffering an extreme case of emasculation or castration anxiety. German men must also have been feeling similarly anxious over women assuming traditionally male roles and professions, as indicated by the inclusion of this humorous illustration in Kriegs-album der Lustige Blätter.

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Even after a German U-Boat sank the British passenger ship, the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 with great loss of innocent life, President Woodrow Wilson maintained a neutral course for the United States.

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GIFT OF THOMAS C. RAGAN

Sheet music covers from 1915 reflect America’s conflicted feelings about the war, with some depicting American mothers adopting a firm anti-interventionist stance.

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After President Wilson delivered his “too proud to fight” speech on May 10th, 1915, former President Theodore Roosevelt attacked Wilson in the press and berated his pacifism as unmanly and un-American in the face of German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas. When America did enter the war in 1917, American mothers—at least those depicted on sheet music covers—did an about-face, considering it their patriotic duty to send their sons off to war.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Images of mothers and children were also used as cover art on popular musical scores.

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The Delineator, a magazine published for a female readership, also used cover illustrations designed to instill patriotism. Articles between the covers were also written to remind the folks back home that the American Expeditionary Force was fighting overseas in defense of their families, and to encourage women to do their part on the home front.

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GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

A poster aimed at recruiting African-Americans eschewed the all-too common stereotypes of the era and depicted a middle class family in front of the hearth fire in a very wholesome Norman Rockwell-esque manner.

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Neighbors would have known that the missing family patriarch—(pictured in uniform in a framed photograph above the fireplace)—is doing his patriotic duty by the inclusion of a starred service flag hanging proudly in the window.

Younger (and seemingly single) women were pictured on patriotic sheet music covers as a means of encouraging young men to enlist. Much like the 1917 Navy recruiting poster by artist Howard Chandler Christy, one such musical score depicts a pretty girl in a sailor suit with the less-than-subtle message that every girl adores a man in uniform.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Other sheet music covers picture young women serving as “surrogate mothers” in nursing uniforms providing comfort (and perhaps something other than maternal love) to wounded soldiers.

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GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

A final set of music scores use illustrations of attractive French women on the covers to imply that American doughboys sailing overseas might find opportunities for love and romance as well as heroism.

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GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

In addition to using a red, white, and blue color palette on the cover (echoing the colors of the flags of both France and the United States), the lyrics of the last musical score suggested that American soldiers might even bring home a medal of honor, but also a French war bride!

~ by "The Chief" on October 3, 2014.

One Response to “WOMEN AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR: SOME ARTIFACTS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. Amazing blog!

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