Icons in peril in World War I posters

This is the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. Many museums chose to commemorate World War I on the 100th anniversary of the European onset of the War, as early as 2014. But, for others, the 2017 date seemed more mission-appropriate.

Since I seem to be obsessed with public protest this year, I will join in the current commemorations. The Museum of the City of New York just opened its Spring temporary exhibition on Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York. It is well worth a visit. Most of the artifacts on display are spectacularly well-preserved posters from the period, augmented by additional graphics, such as flyers and my personal favorite, sheet music covers. The sub-title is highly appropriate for this exhibit since the works are from a time when all of the commercial art industries were located in New York. Advertising, publicity, magazines, and publishing all came from here. This was a period in which commercial artists and graphics designers were known to the public. Charles Dana Gibson led the way, of course, but Coles Philips, Nell Brinkley, and James Montgomery Flagg were also recognizable from their magazine covers and advertisements. Most of the mad men (plus the Peggys and Joans) contributed to the war effort without sacrificing their personal, recognizable styles.

The common usage of the word “iconic” gets on my nerves, but this exhibit really is about icons.   One of the most noticeable things in the exhibit is that, apart from Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam Needs You, most of the figures in the posters are female. I’m choosing to say female, not women. Since the 1890s, an icon (in the true sense of the word) had taken possession of American graphics – a woman in a Grecian garment and laurel wreath. She represented the future, invention and the new American century.  She had a personal life as an active Suffrage icon as well, of course.  But she shows up draped in an American flag on posters for enlistment and, especially, for the many versions of Treasury notes, bonds and loans with which the general public was expected to fund the war effort.

The alternative iconic woman was the mother figure. She had been integral in the debates about entrance into the war – there were even Tin Pan Alley songs “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” and “I’m Proud to Raise My Boy to be a Solder.” As the War began, however, the American mother figures were uniformly seen as supportive and tragic.  The exhibit deserves praise for including the sheet music cover of “He Draws No Color Line,” illustrated with the African American mother and World War I soldier. The lyrics refer to soldiers in the Civil and Spanish-American War, but, like so many popular songs, it was updated for the current war.   Some of the posters showed the mothers of Europe as well.  They are depicted as refugees in images that look horribly contemporary.

The exhibition, however, features images of active women as well. The women of the Wartime home front were not just pining. They appear in the posters farming with the Land Army, as well as doing factory work as earlier versions of Rosie the Riveter.   They are also drawn in their overseas volunteer activities – Red Cross, nurse, ambulance driver, and YMCA. The latter poster appears next to an actual YMCA uniform, from MCNY’s costume and textile collection.

There will be public programs and curatorial tours throughout the run of the exhibition. Visit mcny.org for more information.

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