America’s First World War posters

One hundred years ago the United States of America declared war on Germany and its allies on 6 April 1917. History curator Stephanie Gibson looks at American propaganda posters from the time, some of which were on display in New Zealand.

Poster featuring Uncle Sam pointing a finger the viewer. Text says 'I Want You For U.S. Army'

‘I Want You’ poster, April 1917, by James Montgomery Flagg. Te Papa (GH016374)

In the months that followed the declaration, millions of dramatic, emotional and persuasive American war posters were printed for recruitment, fundraising, Red Cross work, home front labour needs, conserving resources and food economy. Te Papa holds several examples, including the most iconic American poster of all: ‘I Want You’ by James Montgomery Flagg.

American First World War poster featuring a young girl saying 'My Daddy bought me a Government Bond of the Third Liberty Loan'.

No part of society escaped the call for money. Sometimes children were used to persuade and/or shame people into giving money to the government’s war effort. ‘My Daddy Bought Me a Government Bond’ poster, 1918, The United States Printing & Lithograph Co. Te Papa (GH016652)

War posters were displayed in New Zealand towns and cities during the war, adorning a wide range of public buildings and spaces, such as recruitment stations, post offices, banks, shops, factories, tramcars, passenger ships, railway stations, and train carriages. New Zealand-made posters were seen alongside British, Australian, and occasionally American posters, which were sent to New Zealand for display to encourage recruitment of men and money.

Poster featuring two soldiers running with guns. Text: 'Victory is a Question of Stamina'

‘Victory is a Question of Stamina’ poster, 1917, by Harvey Dunn. Te Papa (GH016597)

Most of the warring nations were interested in the degree of success achieved by these propaganda posters in terms of design and message, and there was great interest in the artistic merits of each nation’s posters at the time. American posters were analysed favourably as follows: ‘The recruiting posters in particular have a freedom of design, a vigour and grip, which really tell. For when America came into the War … There was an air of glad youth in them which came like a Spring wind over our war-weary spirits.’1

Poster featuring a provocative young woman exhorting soldiers to fight.

‘Clear The Way!!’ poster, September 1918, by Howard Chandler Christy. Te Papa (GH016599)

That said, American forces were slow to build up in Europe, much to the frustration of the Allies. The first units arrived on the Western Front in May 1917, but didn’t experience battle until October 1917. However, American soldiers paid a heavy toll in casualties, partly because of inexperience, and unwillingness to learn from the lessons of the British and French forces.

Poster featuring a black and white drawing of a soldier sitting in a trench having a cup of tea. Text: 'Feed a Fighter'.

‘Feed a Fighter’ poster, 1918, by Wallace Morgan. Te Papa (GH016306)

You can see our First World War posters on Collections Online and read more about them here [PDF, 1.85 MB].

  1. Hardie, M. and Sabin, A.K. (1920). War posters: issued by belligerent and neutral nations 19141919. London: A & C Black Ltd.

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