When Posters Went to War

As the United States entered the war alongside the Allies in April 1917, admen and artists alike joined forces to “sell the war” to Americans. 20 million propaganda posters were made between spring 1917 and the Armistice of 1918. Sixty original illustrations will be on display at the Museum of the City of New York until October 9.

On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress declared war against the German Empire. The vote was unanimous: 455 votes for, 56 against. But the country wasn’t ready. 4,000 miles away from the trenches, the United States was still tending to its wounds from the Civil War. Funds were lacking and the armed forces totaled less than 200,000 soldiers. The country was an aggregation of peoples divided by the conflict: the Irish refused to fight alongside the British, while the Jews refused to defend the Russian Empire. In order to unite Americans in the war effort, a formidable propaganda machine was set up.

The Committee on Public Information created by Washington was tasked with producing a continuous outpouring of posters, leaflets, magazine covers and sheet music covers. The Division of Pictorial Publicity, a 300-strong group of painters, illustrators and admen, set up camp in New York. “The city was the logical place for such an enterprise, with all these ad agencies, art schools and art societies,” said Steven Jaffe, curator at the Museum of the City of New York. During the 20 months of American engagement in the war, there was a “deluge of publicity” over the whole country: 2,500 illustrations were designed, reproduced and posted over all fifty States.

A romantic image of the war

New Yorker millionaire and railroad magnate John W. Campbell collected numerous posters, offering them to the Museum of the City of New York in 1943. Organized in partnership with the cultural services of the Embassy of France in Washington, the exhibition Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York draws from this important collection. The exhibition is structured by themes: the army, hatred of German enemy, the mobilization of women, victory, and the return home.

To help persuade young Americans to join the American army, illustrator James Montgomery Flagg set himself in front of a mirror and pointed a menacing finger towards his reflection. This self portrait, with an added white goatee and an Uncle Sam top hat, became I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY, “the most famous poster in history”. Not all of the illustrations were part of the government’s initiative. Some were requested by organizations or businesses. This was the case for a poster encouraging people to buy Liberty bonds, which was financed by the French perfumer Edouard Pinaud, who had offices in Paris and New York at the time.

The first posters appearing in the exhibition were made in spring 1917. They captured the patriotic momentum and the jubilation of the beginning of the mission. “At this point, Americans had not yet lived the war. They had not yet witnessed coffins coming home,” observed Steven Jaffe. “Their image of the war is innocent and romantic.” A young seaman in his freshly pressed uniform boards his ship in the setting sun. In these pictures, the battlefield is absent. The war is presented as a glorious and exotic adventure.

New York at the time of war

To mobilize the homefront, “New York became a theatre of war,” explained the curator. Vibrantly colored illustrations covered newsstands, subway stations and billboards all over the city. Department stores like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor dressed their windows with scenes of battle. Crowds gathered outside the Public Library to watch artists live-painting patriotic banners that would go on to line the length of 5th Avenue, nicknamed “Avenue of the Allies.”

The first American troops landed at the port of Saint-Nazaire on June 26, 1917, and by fall they were on the Lorraine front. In September 1918, 550,000 “doughboys” took part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in the Meuse département. But the war dragged on, and as the first victims fell, the messaged darkened. A poster from 1918 shows a soldier tangled up in the barbed wire of the no man’s land. “Buy Liberty bonds,” hammers home the poster.

Once the Armistice of November 11, 1918, was signed, New York entered steadfast into the Roaring Twenties. Spared by the destructions of battle, the city transformed into the economic capital, and the Madison Avenue admen gained legitimacy. Artists cast aside propaganda for the Dada art movement, and in Harlem clubs a new sound rang out, one brought over from Paris by African-American soldiers. And so, jazz was born.


James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for U.S. Army, 1917.


Charles Edwin Ruttan, A Wonderful Opportunity for You – United States Navy, c.1917.


Edward Penfield, Will you help the Women of France? Save Wheat, 1918.


F.A. Crépaux, An Echo From France – Buy Liberty Bonds, 1918.


Oscar Edward Cesare, Remember the Bond, 1917-1919.

Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York
Avril 5 through October 9
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029


  • Two comments:
    *The author states, “2,500 illustrations were designed, reproduced and posted over all fifty States.” There were 48, not 50, states at the time of the Great War. Alaska and Hawaii were territories and became states in 1959.
    *Also, “…and in Harlem clubs a new sound rang out, one brought over from Paris by African-American soldiers. And so, jazz was born.” The African Americans brought jazz TO Paris. They did not acquire it from Paris.

  • Related