The class I took in Canadian Design History earlier this year has already sparked a couple of Speak Up posts, and here, now is the third. I should probably take classes more often. What caught my eye then, and has been nagging at me ever since, was a single poster produced by the Canadian Government during World War II.
To a 21st Century person, that’s a very unusual message, and it says a lot about the mentality of a nation during wartime nearly 100 years ago. For the period covering both World Wars, the concept of war as all-encompassing to every aspect of life was widely promoted, felt and lived. During WWI, the Canada Food Board issued these posters:
Canadians were both encouraged to grow and preserve their own crops, but also threatened with punishment if they “hoarded” food. Seems like a bit of a mixed message, but other posters make it more clear:
The idea being that food resources which could be exported needed to be preserved for the need of soldiers, and that Canadians were to grow their own food as much as possible. The Food Board also produced posters encouraging people to go without, and implemented themed days such as “meatless Fridays,” and encouraged higher consumption of fish.
All of this was in aid of the “war effort.” A term which is familiar to us, while at the same time being conceptually foreign. As I looked at these posters, and thought of the concept of “war effort”—wherein an entire nation is encouraged to sacrifice in aid of a war; where the effects of a war fought overseas are felt very personally at home—I wondered, “was this a Canadian thing?”
It was not. The above two posters are American. Some of the reasons for saving food was a little less … shall we say, savoury:
After you get over your initial reaction of “Ewww…” and “Ha ha,” I want you to consider for a moment the idea of actually saving fat and bones and delivering them to some centralized place where they are collected and then shipped to, presumaby, munitions factories. Now that’s a war effort.
Nor was this conservation movement isolated to food.
The one on the left is Canadian, the one on the right, British. As an interesting side-note, in Alberta, somewhere west of Red Deer, there used to be a farmer who had collected hundreds of old tractors, which he had used to make a miles-long fence. The unsubstantiated story I heard was that since the war he had obsesssively collected metal in the form of tractors, cars and other vehicles so that they could not be used to make bombs—a concept which I thought completely mad at the time, but now understand the source of his logic.
Please note also, the poster references to “local commitees”. The war effort had a strong community base with those unable to actually go and fight pitching in to help the national cause at a local level. This idea that individuals can make a difference was both nurtured and used during the period of the two World Wars.
From the Ohio History website: “Posters, such as these, helped mobilize the nation for World War II. They called for sacrifice and participation. Citizens were asked to contribute time and money, to produce products, to conserve resources, and to contribute to the war effort in personal ways.”
This early conservation movement puts the current one to shame, as it covers not only saving and—ahem—recycling, but repair (both of the above are American). The entire industry of Repair seems to have all but dried up and blown away in the 21st Century.
While individuals were asked to conserve, businesses were encouraged to produce.
The poster on the left is Canadian; on the right, American.
Another side note: In a famous wartime advertising campaign Lucky Strike cigarettes changed their packaging from green to white, with the slogan “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War”, on the premise that the “copper-based” green ink was needed for the war in use for uniforms and all that green paint, among other things (although it is now known they changed the pack for purely commercial reasons). This is a notion that to us may seem laughable, but was, at that time, completely plausible.
No human aspect went untouched by the war effort; even the brain was called into service.
Another constant message that bombarded the public (both individuals and corporations) during this time was to contribute money by buying war bonds, or, as they were known in Canada—Victory Bonds. In 1915 alone, $100,000,000 worth of bonds were purchased. There was even a campaign of “Thrift Stamps” aimed at children which could be collected, like box tops, until they had enough to exchange for a Victory Bond.
The above is Canadian, from WWI. Interestingly, the Victory Bonds had a renewed campaign just after WWI, with a focus on rehabilitating Canada’s returning soldiers.
As well, in Canada, we had the Canadian Patriotic Fund, which served to provide support to the dependents of soldiers. Community volunteers handled the distribution of funds and management of resources for families. In every aspect, citizens were expected to “Fight or Pay.”
While North Americans were spared the ravages of war on their native soil, I find the depth of awareness very interesting, and the fact that the war affected everyone, not just the soldiers fighting in Europe.
The above two posters are Canadian, from WWII, and show this concept of unity between soldiers and workers or civilians. I do not think the socialist aspect of this is coincidental. This was a time when socialism was a popular political ideal in Canada, and even in the US with the rise of trade unions.
In fact, the entire concept of “war effort” is a socialist concept, in that society as a whole bands together for a common cause, that the social needs outweigh the needs of the individual, that the sacrifice of one is beneficial to the group.
Of course, in hindsight, WWII in particular is seen as a necessary war, but at the time, there was no way that the citizens could have known that. Presumably, it is our current access to a wide range of dissenting information that prevents us from falling so wholeheartedly for a “war effort” … perhaps ever again. And yet, there are aspects of these campaigns that seem strikingly pertinent to today’s situation.
I’m not the only one to have noticed it.
War poster parodies abound, but they are done particularly effectively by Micah Wright in his Propaganda Remix collection (above, and below), where he not only nails the message, but does so with often convincing graphic fidelity.
Much of the conservation messages during the World Wars was brought about by actual need. Those wars devastated trade between western nations, and the need to conserve and to be as self-sufficient as possible was real. Times have changed, and it would take a truly global war to put the pinch on North America’s supply chains in a similar way. However, the parallels with the supply of fuel are obvious, and the lack of a major government-funded conservation movement, curious. Surely it is the most “patriotic” thing to do?
In addition, while Canada is not currently a nation officially at war (although we have troops in Afghanistan), the United States is, and although posters have long passed as the most efficient means of communication, it seems that the current messaging regarding America’s war doesn’t go much further than fear-mongering. I don’t support this current war, nor do I support wars in general, but at the same time I can’t help but notice that missing element of sacrifice on the home front.
Is it simply that after WWII, the nature of wars changed? Or the nature of the dissemination of information? Are the people who live in democracies just too media-savvy to ever be swept up, as a nation, again? Is there a link between the demise of the socialist aspects of the war effort and the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s?
The wealth of posters from the First and Second World Wars seems to exist as a kind of graphic fossil record. The sudden burgeoning in production of posters around 1914 in aid of government propaganda, followed by the sudden death of same approximatly 30 years later is, to me, slightly mysterious. The “belle epoche” of poster design occurred in the late 1800s, so it is no surprise that the poster was a natural form of communication for governments at the advent of WWI, and as effectiveness in poster design was refined it really got into full swing during WWII. Thousands of poster designs and tens of millions of posters were produced during this period. And then, in 1950, with the advent of the Korean War—only 5 years after the end of WWII—this poster record abruptly vanishes.
A better researcher than I, with a great deal more time, could tell me what the psychological climate was during the Korean War—and we already know what the climate was, certainly during the latter part of the Vietnam War (at which time the role of the poster rose to its position as an effective, or at least popular, method of anti-war protest). This would perhaps provide answers to my questions about the evolution of war propaganda, and to citizens’ attitudes toward war, in general.
But in this century, I think we could take a page, as it were, from the U.S. Office of War Information from 1942.
Many of these posters, and so many more are collected at:
McGill University Libraries Canadian War Poster Collection
The Canadian Government Archives
The Minneapolis Public Library
The Ohio Historical Society
The Canadian Air Museum
The Canadian Museum of Civilization