Getting the Message Out
The Poster Boys of World War II
Summer 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2
By Robert Ellis
|Through such posters as this one by the artist Holcomb, the U.S. Government urged the public to support the war effort. (44-PA-1603)|
The images and the messages on these government-produced posters, by some of the nation' s most famous artists, are as powerful today as they were 60 years ago.
There is Norman Rockwell's unequaled Four Freedoms—a series of paintings depicting the four freedoms that Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined as our reasons for supporting the Allied cause in World War II: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
J. Howard Miller's famous We Can Do It poster, sometimes known as "Rosie the Riveter," provided the message that even with so many men in uniform, America's plants and factories would keep on producing war materials, with women filling many of those vital jobs.
Thomas Hart Benton's The Sowers depicts grotesque images of German soldiers sowing skulls as seeds in a barren field, telling Americans that the German war machine was sowing death in every country they conquered. And Ben Shahn created a poster with the message: We French workers warn you . . . defeat means slavery, starvation, death.
Ben Shahn's poster of French workers urged Americans to keep up the fight against tyranny. (44-PA-246)
These were just a few of the thousands of posters produced and distributed by the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II to persuade the American people to support the war effort, to conserve the nation's vital resources, to buy saving bonds, and to not reveal possible national secrets.
To get these messages out, however, the federal government turned not to its own employees or to its military. The government mobilized the Boy Scouts of America.
The massive distribution of posters across the United States during World War II was a challenge. The OWI realized that posters had to be placed in street-level windows of every store, office, restaurant, and "service establishment of every kind" in the United States in order to reach the greatest number of people.
Before President Roosevelt established the Office of War Information by executive order on June 12, 1942, four different federal agencies disseminated government information to the public: the Foreign Information Service, the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF), the Office of Government Reports, and the Division of Information of the Office of Emergency Management. By combining so many different divisions, branches, and offices into one central organization, Roosevelt sought to avoid conflicting and confusing government statements.
The President had cause for concern. When conflicting reports about the loss of naval vessels and the number of lives lost at Pearl Harbor surfaced, the American public began to doubt the official reports from the U.S. Government. To reestablish the trust of the people, President Roosevelt created the OWI and directed it to develop information programs to foster an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the government's war policies, activities, and aims.
Because the OWI's mandate covered both foreign and domestic audiences, two branches were created: the Overseas Operations Branch and the Domestic Operations Branch. Within the Domestic Operations Branch, the Bureau of Publications and Graphics was established to coordinate the clearance, coordination, production, printing, and distribution of government posters and graphics.
OWI's goal was ambitious: to place posters in every city and town across the United States. The agency's plan called for an ongoing system of distribution; posters would be exchanged for new ones every two weeks. To accomplish its goal, the OWI formed a National Retail Committee, with local chapters in cities and towns across the United States. Each local committee would establish the necessary distribution outlets. For the plan to work, enthusiastic involvement of citizens was crucial. Each committee solicited the help of local store owners, executives of the Boy Scouts of America, and whenever possible a member of the local Victory Display Committee.
Collectively these local groups had some impact on the subject matter of the posters they would receive. The National Retail Committee sent local committees and the Boy Scouts sketches for their approval.
The OWI asked various other professional and volunteer organizations to help distribute its posters. The most important of these organizations were the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), Western Union, the Association of American Railroads, the National Retail Association, and various women's organizations.
Women were essential to the war effort as workers and consumers. When the OWI decided to design a series of posters on how to save the fat in food, it targeted its poster campaign to women, especially female factory workers, nurses, and homemakers—all of whom were rationing food. OWI found a willing advocate for this poster's distribution at a national publication. Mrs. Louise Sloane, promotion director of Woman's Day magazine, coordinated the "Join Up" campaign by mailing posters to the YWCA, the New York Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Red Cross, and the American Legion Auxiliary. Owners of beauty parlors were also encouraged to display the posters, especially those relating to rumors, rationing, and the recruitment of nurses.
The OAAA organized an Outdoor Advertising Advising Committee, which encouraged members to be responsible for the distribution of 250,000 one-sheet posters a month. The committee gave outdoor advertising businesses exact directions on how to display the posters. Each outdoor billboard held 24 different sheets pasted together to form a single image. The OAAA decided to place the one-sheet OWI poster, which measured 1/24 of the total area of all the combined sheets, in the lower right-hand corner of each billboard. The larger picture was therefore unbroken save for where the OWI poster was prominently displayed.
Companies whose businesses spanned a large geographical area also helped distribute the OWI message. These included the outlets of Western Union and Postal Telegraph offices, the Association of American Railroads, the Pullman Company, and the Cab Research Bureau. Many small posters were placed in approximately 35,000 coaches by the Association of American Railroads. The Pullman Company also pledged to put national security and anti-rumor posters in every Pullman car. The American Taxicab Association, the National Association of Taxicab Owners, the United Association of Motor Bus Operators, the Cab Research Bureau, and the American Transit Association pledged to put posters in every cab.
Robert Ellis is a reference archivist in the Old Military and Civil Branch at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Mr. Ellis is responsible for the records of the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Claims, and the District Court for the District of Columbia.