The Paper War

The Paper War

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The Paper War

Collectors Growing More Fascinated by Images, Themes of Wartime Propaganda Posters

By Eric Bradley

The Paper War

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) World War I Propaganda (Leslie-Judge Co., 1917) Auction price: $6,572 / July 2011

Propaganda posters, rich with emotion, symbolism, bold typography and stark images, are getting more attention from collectors as nostalgia takes over where persuasion left off.

Last year, Heritage Auctions set a house record when it offered a rare World War I recruitment poster titled “Destroy This Mad Brute.” It realized $11,353 – the highest price realized at the auction house for a wartime propaganda poster.

In New Orleans, the National World War II Museum has developed an entire curriculum on the topic geared toward elementary students. “Nine times out of 10, the kids know who Rosie the Riveter is,” says Chrissy Gregg, the museum’s virtual classroom coordinator and co-special exhibit curator for We Can …We Will …We Must! ­Allied Propaganda Posters of WWII. “The kids know her from the 1940s and it may be one of the few things they recognize from the 1940s.”

Gregg and Lindsey Barnes, the museum’s senior archivist, turned to the museum’s 300-piece collection for more than 70 examples that best represent the era’s most common themes: factory production, the home front, fear, bond sales, and the United Nations and its Allies. During the early years of World War II, propaganda posters relied on these themes, as well as the concept of America as a global defender of the weak and innocent, mostly because war-weary Americans did not want to enter another global conflict barely 20 years after the end of World War I.


The 1942 poster “The United Nations Fight for Freedom” depicts an image of the Statue of Liberty, looking positively defiant, surrounded by the 30 flags that made up the United Nations, a new term coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt following the Arcadia Conference held just weeks after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Six months later, Roosevelt created the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), which immediately hired commercial artists and advertising specialists to craft a marketable narrative to U.S. citizens.

As the war dragged on, however, two contending groups within the OWI clashed fiercely over poster design and intentions, with lines drawn between advertisers who saw the conflict as a “commodity” to be sold to the public and artists who favored more nuanced and stylized “war art,” Gregg says. A good example of this approach – now sought after by collectors – is Norman Rockwell’s 1942 production poster titled “Let’s Give Him Enough and On Time.” Beautiful and effective, the striking poster depicts a soldier in a frayed uniform at the helm of a weapon nearly exhausted of its ammo.


“In the beginning, there were artists who wanted to do their best, to show the truth behind the war,” Gregg explains. “Soon, a different school of thought took over: selling the war like a product. We see this division and even some hostility over who had control in making and designing the posters and then the posters began to take on a different look about them. Advertisers were given more control and some artists resigned.”

By 1943, the ad specialists had taken over the communication office and the posters shifted focus to information campaigns: straightforward images, a call to action, and an emphasis on the home front gave the posters the look of magazine advertisements. “These posters show everybody has a role to play and by not doing something toward the effort is separate from the norm,” Gregg says. “They show it’s your duty to support the war effort in any way you can – if not by working in a factory then by rationing.” The OWI closed in September 1945.


The abundant diversity and high production runs leaves a great deal of posters for today’s collectors, according to Grey Smith, director of Vintage Movie Posters at Heritage Auctions. The market for WWI and WWII posters is growing, he says.

The 1917 poster “Destroy This Mad Brute” is a standout due to artist Harry R. Hopps’ barbarous stereotype of a German soldier. Generally, most propaganda posters can be found at auction for $100 to $900, with exceptional examples found between $1,000 and $5,000.

“It’s not only the most significant posters, such as James Montgomery Flagg’s ‘I Want You’, that seem to be on the rise with young collectors,” Smith says. “More than just the most iconic images are doing well at auction.”

This story originally appeared in The Intelligent Collector magazine (www.IntelligentCollector.com).©2014 Heritage Auctions. Eric Bradley is author of the new book Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff (Krause, 2014).

Mather Worker Motivational Posters Kept Propaganda Alive After WWI

Produced from 1923-29, workplace posters featured artwork by Chicago artist Robert Beebe

Following World War I, economies all around the globe suffered crippling setbacks. Growth slowed to a crawl and a labor shortage affected both the United States and Europe. Although the need for rationing was over, the U.S. government and its industries still pushed citizens for high-productivity to get the economy back on track and assist with recovery. It didn’t take long for employers to bring the successful propaganda campaigns popular during the war straight into the workplace to boost morale and output.

One line of worker motivational posters was produced between 1923 and 1929 by Charles Mather, a Chicago printer. Employers could take their pick from a catalog of posters covering such workplace topics as practical jokes, fire prevention, laziness, accountability, and even gossip. Mather & Company provided over 300 unique posters over the course of seven years. Included in these were posters with such titles as “The Game is Won in the Ninth Inning,” “Excuses Get You Nothing,” and “Good Work Well Done.”

“These posters are artistic representations of the Welfare Capitalism movement – a time when employers countered the grievances of labor unions and socialists by voluntarily offering higher wages, health insurance, reduced hours, and paid vacations in exchange for higher productivity and improved employee loyalty,” said Grey Smith, Director of vintage posters at Heritage Auctions. “Then the stock market crashed and employers no longer had extra funds to spend on motivational material.”

The posters also are colorful examples of stone lithography and have been subjects of numerous art exhibitions from Massachusetts to Florida. Mather sought out artists such as Willard Frederick Elmes, Hal Depuy, and Frank Beatty to create the posters with bold graphics and simple, direct messages. Native Chicago artist Robert Beebe can be credited with lending his immense talent to the selection of Mather posters. Beebe’s signature can be found at the bottom right or left on each original poster.

Mather motivational posters have developed a healthy collector base. Most often found in urban areas surrounding large employers active during the 1920s, the posters are valued between $100 to $300 at collectible shows and auctions.

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