Nebraska State Historical Society Blog

WWI, Omaha, and eBay

WWI parade through city street

By Oliver B. Pollak

The war is 100 years past; all participants are dead. Thousands of stone memorials around the world honor the combatants. New-found ephemera breathes vitality into military and civilian heroism.

The search-and-sale eBay engine began in 1995. My own 237 eBay purchases make me a small player. Postcards, matchbooks, menus, manuscripts, charitable cookbooks, and other popular culture artifacts, memorabilia, and ephemera obtained there have been instrumental in at least half a dozen projects. My most expensive purchase was an auction item, the 1876 Menu for the Lancaster County Bar Association Centennial Metropolitan Hotel banquet. I smelled a story and it appeared in Nebraska Lawyer.

While preparing my book, Welcome to Omaha (about Omaha hospitality), for Arcadia Publishing, I searched eBay for “Omaha hotel postcard,” or inn, motor lodge, motel, and the like. Most postcards are offered as “Buy it Now” rather than auction.

The search for First World War items in November 2017 was staggering. “WWI” yielded more than 175,000 items; “World War I,” nearly 29,000; “World War One” almost as many; and “First World War” more than 17,000. Adding Lincoln or Omaha to the search reduced the array. I purchased three WWI items, and let one slip away.


Photo above: Liberty Day. Postmarked April 9, 1918, this postcard records the anniversary of the US declaration of war. We can see the growth of Omaha in the steel skeleton of the 14-story Nebraska Telephone Company building at 19th and Douglas (completed in 1919).

The “Buy War Bonds” march on the afternoon of April 6, 1918, was touted as the largest demonstration in Omaha’s history. The press speculated that there would be few observers, as most would be marching. The April 7 Omaha Sunday Bee headline proclaimed: “50,000 MARCH LIBERTY DAY.” These well-dressed men and women are marching along on Farnam Street’s Auto Row. The message on the back of the card, mailed to Chicago, reads: “Puzzle Picture. Point out the best looking man. One guess only.”

The photograph was taken by Walter W. Scott. His images appeared in the World-Herald and the Bee. He had a studio, processed any size film for 10 cents a roll, made enlargements, and judged photography contests. He died in 1949 the age of 74.


skyline view of Omaha

OMAHA, the HUB CENTER of our patriotic country, has “GONE OVER THE TOP” on every PATRIOTIC DRIVE.

This 1918 bi-fold panorama, measuring 11” x 3½”, was provided by the Bureau of Publicity of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and praises Omaha’s contribution to the war effort. On the left is the sixteen story Fontenelle Hotel, designed by Thomas Rogers Kimball, which opened in February 1905. Moving to the right is the 1889 City Hall, fronted by a large WELCOME. The 1888 New York Life Insurance Building is topped with a cenotaph (similar to the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids). At least five flags fly across the city, probably added by the artist.

On the back of the card a soldier wrote his mother in pencil about military life:

Dear Mother & all,

This leaves me all o.k. and having a good time. We hved went thru Washington Oregon Idaho Wyo Nebraska Iowa and Missouri. We have lost 2 fellows on this trip so far. One got left at Omaha Nebraska and another one fell off the train last night.

Everywhere we are given a great reception. The red cross canteen keeps us in cigarettes. chewing gum, matches and ice cream, fruit & watermelon and also gives us postal cards.

We will get in St. Louis about 5 oclock this evening. Our train hit a small hand car this morning and tore it up but did not hurt anyone.


inside a restaurant

War Casualties and an Oriental Room Blackstone Hotel Postcard

The Blackstone Hotel opened in 1916. The Oriental Room has hints of Japanese decor with lights hanging from the ceiling and maybe the flower arrangement. The letter on the back of this postcard, dated September 6, 1918, mentions the war in Europe:

back of postcard

"Mrs. Dawes just got Arts first letter since word he was wounded.” These few words evoke the heartrending image of two people in uniform knocking on the door of the parents or spouse of a downed warrior.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website provides these statistics for US casualties in World War I:

Total U.S. Service Members (worldwide) 4,734,991

Battle Deaths                                                  53,402

Other Deaths in Service (Non-theater)           63,114

Non-mortal Woundings                                204,002


various postcards, letters, photos

Brandeis Merchandizing

The one that got away. This is page 12 of the twelve-page scrapbook of Omahan Sarah Givens. Among the at least nine items in the picture is a Brandeis brochure offering: Brandeis’   Perfected Over Sea Service CONDUCTED WITHOUT PROFIT For Your Boy “Over ThereBrandeis Store   Omaha.  The newspaper websites Chronicling America and Genealogy Bank, which include back issues of the Omaha Bee and Omaha World-Herald, did not reveal this offer appearing in either newspaper.

I regret not bidding, but scrapbooks are more expensive and it was not germane to my project.

I alerted the one person I know with the last name of Givens, and she was not related. Hopefully the new owner, who paid about $55, puts it to good use.



May 23, 1917, telegram from John J. Pershing to Chancellor Avery: "Circumstances have so shaped themselves since the declaration of war that I shall be unable to be present at the commencement excercises at the university."

(Courtesy, Nebraska U, A Collaborative History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

This is not an eBay item, but interesting nonetheless.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, had Nebraska connections. He led cadets in the Military Department at the University of Nebraska, 1891 to 1895, simultaneously earning a law degree. Pershing Square in San Francisco’s Presidio dates from 1915, marking the tragic house fire that killed Pershing’s wife and three daughters while he was in Mexico. Pershing was to give the Commencement Oration at the University of Nebraska on June 13, 1917. But the war interfered, and Roscoe Pound was asked to substitute.

Pershing Square in Los Angeles dates from November 1918. The Pershing Memorial in Omaha, near Eppley Airport dates from 1940. Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln flourished from 1957 to 2014. At least five hotels carry the name Pershing.



When these items appear on eBay my wife says, “Somebody died.” She is correct. All these items were originally owned by people no longer on this earth. Their shelf life has expired, but they left paper traces.

It has been a pleasure writing for NSHS since 1982. I witnessed Nebraska History changing from a 6”x 9” format to 8½” x 11”. I used the “card catalogs” and now the online catalogs. As Nebraska History News goes from hard copy to online, the NSHS appears to be accomplishing the mission of economy and utilizing state-of-the-art delivery.

On the German side - Ehrenkreuz fur Frontkampfer

My grandfather, Felix Bachmann (1881-1956), was a surgeon in the German army. Shrapnel in his shoulder ended his surgeon days. He was awarded the “Honor Cross for Front Warriors” shortly after Hitler came to power. He was Jewish, survived Theresienstadt, and emigrated to the United States. During the mid-1950s we lived under the same roof in Ohio and Los Angeles. I have the medal.



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