Addison E. Sheldon, pictured here supervising the work of Society employees, was superintendent of History Nebraska (then known as the Nebraska State Historical Society) from 1917 to 1943. He emphasized collecting materials reflecting the daily lives of ordinary Nebraskans and documenting contemporary events. Soon after becoming superintendent, Sheldon visited the battlefields of France as a press correspondent during the fall of 1918. There he talked with Nebraskans serving on the front lines and returned home with posters, banners, uniforms, shell casings, and other artifacts. He also gathered posters displayed in and around Lincoln during both world wars. In all, Sheldon collected 611 wartime posters for History Nebraska.
Here is a sampling of posters from World War II:
Although most of the posters in the collection are from series distributed nationally, this hand-painted poster is specific to Lincoln and its home front war efforts. Posters were an inexpensive and accessible way to promote rationing, patriotism and solidarity, sacrifice, and the protection of sensitive information.
These posters are from early in the war. Their design tends more towards fine art and subtlety compared to later posters, which were more direct in their appeal and with more of an advertising approach.
Many of the earlier war posters were text heavy. The government eventually turned away from such posters because they took too much effort to read and did not clearly communicate their messages.
Many well-known artists created WWII posters. This poster is by famed artist Jean Carlu.
Posters, such as the following four, encourage saving and the purchase of war bonds, a popular theme. They also reflect the trend towards advertisement-type images. Another interesting feature is the use of guilt as a “selling” point-a common ploy in posters from 1942 on.
A common message admonished against leaking sensitive information that might benefit the enemy. The second and third posters featured here are graphic in their depiction of the fate of American soldiers in such instances. By about 1944-45 this type of poster was no longer produced as the government determined that showing Americans in danger of being killed, or killing others, was not well-received.
This poster’s blatant racism illustrates a deliberate design based on a survey of viewer reactions to similar posters in Canada. The survey indicated that posters were most effective when they were designed to the lowest level of the viewing population’s comprehension, a demographic identified as the “lower third.” Resulting guidelines stated that pictures were more effective than words, and the pictures had to relate to people and objects as the average American saw them. These guidelines all but eliminated the use of fine art imagery in wartime posters.
Sacrifice is a ubiquitous theme in wartime posters-as illustrated below. In 1942 the Office of War Information was formed and charged with the review, approval, and distribution of all posters. The OWI eventually developed six propaganda themes for the posters:
The nature of our enemy
The nature of our allies
The need to work (to win the war at home)
The need to fight
The need to sacrifice
The need to be patriotic and supportive to the war effort
Eventually many corporations and large industry groups began poster production and distribution. Their goal was to promote themselves to the public, as with the railway industry poster, or to encourage worker discipline. Some of the posters attempted to turn employees into “production soldiers,” equating their role with that of the soldiers on the battlefields.
Unions and labor groups also produced their own posters crediting wartime production success to the workers and not necessarily to the industry that employed them. These posters reflected tension between labor and management common during peacetime, which was lessened but not ended by the demands of wartime production.