Let’s begin by looking at our cellphones.

(It’s okay, I’ll wait.)

Who has the weather noted on your cellphone’s home screen?

Who looked out the window when they arose from sleep this morning after looking at the weather on your cellphone?

Every day, humans heed weather — or rather, the weather, giving atmospheric conditions importance enough to prepare the day’s clothing and activities. We turn on the radio or television, ask Alexa, glance at the newspaper in print or on a screen, check weather.com, check the cellphone, or ask another person, who likely turns on the radio or television, asks…

It was a scene out of the Old American West. Bandits on “pinto steeds” raced to overtake an iron horse in California’s San Fernando Valley. The thirty men, newspapers reported, had “lariats and plenty of guns to do the job right.” The gunmen aimed their pistols at the locomotive’s engineer, forcing him to “back to the train to a lonely spot where the passengers and [he] were searched while covered with rifles and revolvers.” Those who “showed fight” were lassoed by the bandits. …

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August Hutaf’s recruitment poster for the US Tank Corps quickly attracts the modern eye. A fierce black cat virtually attacks the viewer. Behind the cat a sky glows in fiery orange and yellow. Below and behind the cat is the firepower the new Tank Corps would bring to World War I. The first words one reads-”TREAT ’EM ROUGH!”-are set apart by black-outlined white lettering in the upper left corner.

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Five months after the Armistice, Americans were still seeing in public places and in their newspapers images of World War I. George Creel and his Committee on Public Information had successfully sold the war to Americans, but payment in full had yet to be made. In late 1917, during the Second Liberty Loan campaign, President Woodrow Wilson had implored Americans to give to protect the nation’s fighting forces: “Shall we be more tender with our dollars than with the lives of our sons?” …

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Researching Posters

As I was researching what would become the exhibition War and Speech: Propaganda, Patriotism, and Dissent in the Great War (Michigan State University Museum, 2017), I followed the advice of a grad school colleague and didn’t first immerse myself in the pertinent literature. (Historians tend to do that a lot.) I wanted to investigate the nearly 500 World War I posters in the Museum’s collection without others’ interpretations persuading me to categorize a given image as representative of this or that artist, theory, etc.

As a scholar of material culture, I also wanted to pay attention to each poster as…

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Laura Brey, Enlist! On Which Side of the Window are You?, 1917. Collection, Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI.

Much scholarly work devoted to American World War I propaganda posters begins with discussions of the Committee on Public Information, established by President Woodrow Wilson only a week after the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. The Committee’s published accounts date the creation of its Division of Pictorial Publicity at the same time.

According to art historian Eric Van Schaack, the Committee’s internal records tell a different story.

George Creel originally asked artist Charles Dana Gibson, president of the Society of Illustrators and creator of the “Gibson Girl,” to gather together a committee of artists and illustrators…

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Come On Lad! Make History As I Did In The Navy, likely 1917 (Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI)

Come On, Lad! Make History As I Did In The Navy was produced in Detroit, Michigan. The clue to its authorship is found in the words “Cozzy” and “EN. Coleman” at the lower right of the poster’s image. “EN. Coleman” was U.S. Navy Ensign D. J. D. Coleman, who was responsible for recruiting Michiganders into service at his office at 161 Griswold Street, Detroit. Ensign Coleman took up his duties in August 2017 (“Navy Recruiting Officer Relieved”). “Cozzy” was Julius Gotsdanker (1892-?). Gotsdanker (sometimes spelled Gottsdanker), born to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, served in the United States Navy…

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Gerrit A. Beneker painting at an easel, 1919 (Archives of American Art, Washington, DC; note my correction of year).

The story of American labor in World War I is pretty well known. With Europe at war, orders for manufactured goods increased. With the end of European immigration, the American labor movement tightened. An increasing cost of living impelled workers to change jobs frequently in the quest for higher wages and better working conditions. Record labor strikes reveal this restlessness: 1,593 in 1915, 3,789 in 1916. Between the United States declaration of war on April 6, 1917, and October 1917, over 3000 labor strikes were called. …

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Dorothy King, Give To The American Chocolate Fund, 1918 (Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI).

The American Chocolate Fund had one mission when it was established during World War I: to send to the American boys “over there” a food that provided bodily sustenance. “The soldier has no more ruthless enemy than his own limit of endurance,” Fund president Ida Tarbell wrote.

There often comes a point in the terrific strains of waiting, of attack and battle, when exhaustion overcomes. Unless he has either food or sleep, he cannot go on. Sleep, we at home, cannot assure him. A sufficient food to carry him over the danger point we can supply.

The popular muckraking journalist…

Shirley Wajda

Historian, curator, and knitter of the American experience.

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