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The Power of Posters: Mobilizing the Home Front to Win The Great War

April 7, 2017 - July 16, 2017

In conjunction with Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster, Gilcrease Museum will draw on the extensive collection of World War I material in McFarlin Library’s Special Collections at The University of Tulsa, to present The Power of Posters: Mobilizing the Home Front to Win The Great War. This exhibition will commemorate the centenary of American entry into the First World War. As tools of mass communication intended to mobilize Americans, the use of posters has never been equaled.

Why was this poster campaign necessary? From the beginning of hostilities, President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed the virtues of American neutrality. Wilson rightfully claimed that “he kept us out of the war” that had engulfed Europe since August of 1914. But by the spring of 1917, Wilson’s desire for neutrality was sinking with each American ship torpedoed by German U-Boats. Consequently, the president faced a dilemma: how to convince the American public that intervention in the war was now unavoidable and absolutely necessary.

Wilson’s solution to the dilemma was the Committee on Public Information. Created less than a week after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the CPI’s sole mission was to mobilize the nation for total war. Their most effective tool proved to be the poster. When graphically vibrant images by well-known illustrators were combined with the latest theories on human psychology, these posters had the power to inspire, inform and motivate Americans at home to support the war effort in a multitude of ways. From messages that encouraged saving a loaf of bread a week to feed armies and civilians alike, to patriotic crusades to buy Liberty Bonds that financed the war, posters convinced the vast majority of Americans that support for the war was essential for national survival.

Despite the passage of 100 years, the many examples presented in The Power of Posters: Mobilizing the Home Front to Win The Great War still retain their emotional power. Ranging from sweet and comforting to menacing and terrifying, they help us in the 21st century understand what it was like to be an American on the home front during The Great War.