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The History of the Lithographic Propaganda Poster

Vintage Propaganda Posters of the First and Second World Wars

By Jim Lapides, Owner, International Poster Gallery

World War I was the first conflict in which the illustrated color lithographic poster was
used as propaganda. Already well established in the world of commerce, travel, and
entertainment before the war, illustrated posters had proven the most effective means of
advertising yet invented. During the war, the poster’s accessibility and impact made it
the single most important means of mass communication.

All sides in World War I used posters to evoke patriotism, sacrifice and hatred of the
enemy - efforts which touched virtually every aspect of wartime life. Posters were
instrumental in raising money, building ships, recruiting troops, conservation and
rationing, provoking patriotism, explaining policy, and marshaling relief efforts. Nowhere
were they more successful than in the U.S., where in scarcely two years more than
2,500 designs and about 20 million posters helped persuade Americans to abandon
their isolationism and conduct a full-scale war against Germany.

Fine examples from the genre include WWI classics such as the sexy Naval recruiting
poster by Howard Chandler Christy, “Gee, I wish I were a man” (1917) alongside grim
and dutiful recruiting posters from Germany, France and the UK. Bond posters from the
major combatants plus the Soviet Union and Hungary offer a host of themes and
strategies, often utilizing flags, coins and other symbols, while production and relief
posters evidence the total involvement of the combatants’ populations.

With the outbreak of World War II, the poster once again was pressed into service.
While many of the themes and techniques of posters remained the same as in World
War I, there were many significant differences due to changes in warfare, society and
the poster itself. First, WWII was much more of an ideological struggle that pitted the
evils of Fascism and Totalitarianism against Democracy, with extreme differences in the
culture and in the Pacific Theater, race of the combatants. Abject hatred of the enemy
led to some extremely virulent propaganda in WWII posters, such as Jack Campbell’s
“Tokio Kid” poster which features a drooling caricature of a murderous, implacable Tojo;
and Boccasile’s vitriolic posters of ape-like Black GIs carrying off Italy’s treasures.

And while World War I was the first war to be considered "total war", World War II with
its V1 rockets and fire bombings of major cities truly made every civilian a soldier. As
warfare extended itself into every aspect of the home front, two themes became much
more prominent – the role of women during the conflict, and espionage. Several
posters will show women in factories, in the service, and in relief work; while posters
such as an anonymous Canadian poster, “Do your part in Silence” shows Hitler
overhearing a group of officers.

Equally significant was the changing nature of the media. While the poster had been at
its pinnacle of influence in World War I, radio and film now dominated and made the war
more immediate and omnipresent. The poster was in many areas relegated to a
supporting role. This role however was increasingly sophisticated, as propaganda
posters not only had been refined in World War I, but also during the Bolshevik Civil
War, the Spanish Civil War and the political struggles of the Twenties and Thirties.
Modern marketing research techniques were often called upon to hone the poster
techniques of the major powers.

In general, these trends pushed the poster to be more realistic and less abstract.
Photography increasingly replaced illustration as a way to improve credibility to a more
knowledgeable and skeptical populace. A fine example is “This is my fight too”,
showing a photograph of a young working woman examining her war bonds.

This year, International Poster Gallery mounted an exhibition entitled “Paper Wars,” a
fascinating exhibition comparing and contrasting the poster campaigns of combatants in
World War I and II. Featuring nearly 50 revealing images, some famous and others
rarely seen, the exhibition runs through June, 2011. Gallery hours are Monday through
Saturday 10 am to 6 pm and Sunday noon to 6 pm. The Gallery is located at 205
Newbury Street in Boston. Call (617) 375-0076 or visit www.internationalposter.com for

In addition to gallery shows and special exhibitions, IPG’s award-winning website,

www.internationalposter.com offers the largest, most comprehensive online collection of
vintage advertising posters in the world. Originally launched in 1998, the site contains
nearly 4,500 images accessible through a powerful search engine.