Flying over New York City this past Friday night, I saw the tiny Statue of Liberty down below, its bright lights flickering against the dark water around it. Next to me sat a young woman, and I pointed out the monument, so perfectly framed by our shared window, to her. This was the beginning of one of those happily awkward conversations that sometimes happen on planes. I discovered she was a senior in college visiting her husband who was stationed in New Jersey for spring break. They were going to spend the night in a hotel near the airport and then travel down to Disney World together. She talked about her eagerness to graduate and spend more time with him but also about her worries – would he be deployed? What would she do if he were?
We landed, and I sped off to the gate of my flight to Boston. I had missed the flight because of delays in New York, and in the flurry of getting booked onto another flight and arranging a later pickup from the Boston airport, I forgot about her.
Sunday afternoon I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and looked at one of their current exhibits: Over There! Posters from World War I. Brightly colored propagandistic images, images once used to convince Americans to enlist, give money, eat less bread, and even die for their country were prettily matted and framed in the galleries of the museum. There’s a dissonance to displays like this. The setting is so genteel – museum-goers, some of them still wearing their nice church clothes, strolling about in a space that cost them a twenty-five dollar ticket to enter. Squint your eyes and don’t read the text on the brilliantly colored posters, and nothing seems awry – just a group of wealthy people looking at beautiful things.
But it is hard to squint that much. The text is large and designed to be read. “WAKE UP AMERICA!” reads one. “FOR VICTORY, BUY MORE BONDS,” reads another. “Beat back the HUN with LIBERTY BONDS!” “JOIN THE AIR SERVICE AND SERVE IN FRANCE! DO IT NOW!” Cacophonies of demands reverberate across the walls of the gallery.
The posters were created as a part of a campaign from the Committee on Public Information. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson established this committee and gave them the assignment of inspiring the people to patriotism and sacrifice. Charles Dana Gibson, who was also the president of the New York Society of Illustrators, headed one division of this committee, the Division of Pictorial Publicity. The artists Gibson gathered together to make these posters were volunteers who donated their talents and created some of the most striking images of the era. Some of them, particularly James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You for (the) U.S. Army, are now iconic.
This is not the first time these posters have been displayed in the museum. John T. Spaulding gave this collection to the museum in the summer of 1937, and they were first displayed in October 1938. A visitor seeing that display would have known that another conflict was about to begin in Europe. He would have also remembered the sacrifices made by ordinary citizens during the First World War. He may have been wealthy enough not to suffer personally during the Great Depression, but the reality of it was all around him. In that context, these posters must have cast an ominous shadow over his thoughts about the future.
On the walls of the current exhibit small notes from the curator, Patrick Murphy, are printed for visitors to read. In one of them Murphy reflects on his experience of putting together this exhibition.
Murphy’s words took me back to my conversation on the plane from several days before, but it also reminded me of many other similar moments I’ve had in airports. As a Midwesterner who was in school on the East Coast from 2003-2009, I spent a lot of time in airports during those years. Those times were always the ones when I realized most acutely that we were at war. During the rest of the semester I was stressed out with all the homework I had to do, but when I got to the airport to travel home for Thanksgiving and Christmas I saw people my age who were more than stressed out; they were traumatized. Hollow-eyed men and women wearing fatigues sat next to me in the airport while I (and many other college kids in Boston Logan Airport) sipped my Starbucks gingerbread latte and read my book. The posters on the walls encouraged us not to plant and raise our own vegetables in a victory garden but to try the peppermint and eggnog flavored lattes too.
I’ll probably never know what we with our over-stuffed backpacks and college sweatshirts looked like to them. What I do know that is that war wasn’t always so tidily quarantined away from civilian life. As these posters make apparent, there was a time when young people were not so neatly divided into those who fought and those who stayed home. Any young man could be drafted, and young women were encouraged to do their part as well by working in a munitions plant or volunteering with various organizations.
In saying this I don’t mean to be nostalgic about the posters or the world as it was in 1917. While the posters made people aware of the war they were fighting, they also hid its horrors. An image of a sailor riding a torpedo through the water makes war look like an exciting adventure, a roller coaster of good times and proof of one’s great manliness. Needless to say, the actual war was not like that. Nevertheless, what I like about these posters, and what I think they offer to contemporary viewers, is the reminder that the way some of us blithely go about our business during war is somewhat unique to our time.