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The City Journals

Vintage World War I propaganda posters displayed at Riverton’s Old Dome Meeting Hall

Feb 27, 2019 04:17PM ● By Mariden Williams

(Poster art by Henry Chandler Christy)

By Mariden Williams | [email protected]

From now through March 6, Riverton’s Old Dome Meeting Hall will be hosting an exhibit of a few dozen World War I-era promotional posters.

The posters were part of a larger public relations effort by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee of Public Information, which produced movie reels, newspaper and magazine articles, pamphlets, exhibits and public speeches, and more than 700 propaganda posters. 

“Through this exhibit, viewers can experience how an advertising campaign can stir patriotic feelings and unite people toward a common goal,” said Casey Saxton, Riverton’s communications director. “They can also consider how these 100-year-old posters would work in today’s world.”

Created by some of the country’s top advertising illustrators, these posters used simple, emotional imagery and messages to generate support for the war effort. The simple symbolism and bold styling of the art have embedded them firmly in the national psyche, and many of them will feel instantly familiar to viewers.

“They’re very skillfully done to arouse patriotic sentiment—the desire to contribute,” said Dr. Laura Williams, an instructor of arts and humanities at Salt Lake Community College. “They always show the enemy as a big hulking thing in a spiked helmet with a bushy walrus mustache, and he’s frequently shown attacking young women, particularly young women holding babies, to play upon men’s protective feelings and inspire them to fight.”

Pictures depict hulking brutish enemies with severed heads tied at their belts; a little girl impishly asking viewers if their daddy has bought them any war bonds; Lady Liberty, frail and delicate, hoisting an American flag at the head of a valiantly determined army.

Dr. Laura Williams, arts and humanities instructor, examines some of the posters. (Mariden Williams/City Journals)

“Most of these posters were obviously targeted at men,” Williams said. “The women are depicted in these rather skimpy toga-like white dresses, off the shoulder in some cases, and they’re always looking down at the viewer with hooded eyes and lips apart, and come-hither expressions, and they’re all made up, of course. And in contrast was the one poster targeted at women, featuring Joan of Arc, fully armored. She’s all made up, too, but she’s looking at the viewers straight on. She’s in control. The idea is that women viewers can act to defend their country, just like Joan did, by purchasing war bonds.”

Both nationally and in Utah, the posters and other public outreach efforts had their desired impact. Utahns purchased millions of dollars of Liberty Bonds and increased its production of vital metals and agricultural goods to meet the growing demands of a nation at war. Around 24,000 Utahns enlisted in the military, and 80 Utah nurses joined the Army and Navy Nurse corps. More than 5 percent of the state’s population—estimated to be about 450,000 in 1917—served in the war.

In spite of the terrifying imagery of enemy soldiers in these propaganda posters, it was not human enemies that caused the greatest harm to Utah’s troops, but microbial ones. Of the 665 casualties Utah suffered, only 219 were killed in action; 15 died in non-combat-related accidents. The rest died of diseases such as influenza, typhoid, malaria, trench fever and trench foot, which is a necrotic rotting of the feet caused by persistent submersion in dirty water; it was common in the cold, cramped conditions of the trenches.

The exhibit is presented by Riverton City through the Utah Division of Arts & Museums Traveling Exhibition Program, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I last November. The Old Dome Meeting Hall is open to the public on Monday through Wednesday from noon to 5 p.m.