World War I Posters: The Social Media of the Early 20th Century

In the early to late 1900s, in terms of public communications, radio was just starting to take off, but the big challenge of communicating important ideas of safety, health and civic information to the public was still in the hands of Guttenberg technology: the Printed Poster. At that time poster media was one of the most important communications mediums of that era.

photo credit: National WW I Museum

Posters fulfilled the role of today's television and Internet, said Doran Cart, senior curator of the National WW I Museum, "in communicating to the public, to educate them, to warn them, to raise money (buying war bonds) and to save food (liberty gardens). Our poster collection is not only a major historic media document of WW I, but also reflects the importance of that medium as a major form of signage from that time period."

"First, not only were the posters colorful and affordable, but they were also ubiquitous as they could easily be put up anywhere there was a flat surface to glue them to as no special skills were needed in flattening them to the walls. Second, posters were a great example of graphic imagery with a strong visual and a minimum of text. Thus non-readers such as children, illiterates and foreigners who couldn't read English could still look at a poster and pretty much get the meaning of its appeal. A picture of soldiers fighting or Uncle Sam pointing a picture at you says it all. Likewise it was such a universal communications medium, that it was equally used by the opposing sides as well, all to bring top of mind awareness about the war and what part each country's citizens could play in contributing to and helping their side to win.

Perhaps the most famous of American posters at that time was the Uncle Sam Wants You recruiting poster. Although Uncle Sam's origins go back at least one hundred years earlier, his familiar hand pointing pose as a 'recruitment draw' didn't really take off till the early days of WW I, with his presence on the cover of a 1916 magazine with the appeal, "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" That in turn eventually became the famous ...Wants You poster that has since appeared everywhere for every following American military new recruitment drive.