The assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, which is officially recognized as the start of World War I, was 100 years ago this year. So World War I is the predominant theme in historical exhibits in 2014 (even though the United States didn't enter the war until 1917). Three Connecticut museums have exhibits of World War I posters on the walls now, with a fourth opening within two weeks.
The posters exhibit at Benton Museum on the campus of University of Connecticut in Storrs is called "Victory is a Question of Stamina: Posters of the First World War." It has a distinct theme: the role women played in the war effort, as replacement factory workers for fighting men, as nurses and nurturers, as switchboard operators helping the armed forces, as homemakers who changed their menus to save the more filling foods for the soldiers in the field.
"The rationing was voluntary, not mandatory, but it was part of the vocabulary of the time," said curator Carla Galfano. "People were asked to replace wheat with oats, corn and rye, to use honey instead of sugar, to eat fish instead of pork, to eat cottage cheese. ... Today, those diets are more common, but back then, it was unusual."
Most of the posters — all from the Benton's permanent collection, which has about 200 World War I posters – focus on the YWCA, the United War Work Campaign and the U.S. Food Administration.
The imagery and wording on the posters are a precursor to feminism. A woman in man's pants holds an airplane in one hand and an explosive device in another. Women work in a factory, stoking a stove. One poster pays homage to the women of France who were "four years in the fight." Another pays homage to "our girls over there." A war-bond-sales poster depicts Joan of Arc saving France, just like American women will save the world by buying bonds.
Litchfield Historical Society
The exhibit of posters at Litchfield Historical Society, "Join the Brave Throng! Poster Art of World War I," has a theme, too. It focuses primarily on donations and sacrifice: donations of used clothes for war refugees and of books for soldiers and especially money for the American Red Cross. Litchfield was home to the state's first Red Cross chapter; it was founded in 1898.
A beautiful Red Cross nurse is shown with a long scroll in her hand. A stout, healthy Red Cross ship rescues two emaciated men on a raft. The Red Cross also collected funds for sick and wounded European soldiers and Christmas packages "for the boys in France."
A few of the historical society's posters have a humorous or menacing edge. A National War Garden Commission poster urging Americans to eat food economically shows the Kaisers' head in a canning jar alongside jars of peas and tomatoes. On the other side of the gallery, a spike-helmeted "Hun" is shown against a backdrop of a flaming city, leading a crying girl by the hand. The headline: "Remember Belgium: Buy Bonds."
Others embrace disparate elements of society: One features a Boy Scout, and another is targeted at immigrants.
Knights of Columbus Museum
Knights of Columbus Museum's exhibit in New Haven has its own angle: the contribution to the war effort and to soldiers' and sailors' needs and comfort, by the Knights of Columbus and other religious organizations such as the National Catholic War Council, the YMCA and YWCA, the Salvation Army and the Jewish Welfare Fund.
During the war, hundreds of K of C huts were set up all over the world, for soldiers and sailors of all religions and nationalities to get items they needed, and K of C kitchens as well. The banners over the huts read "Everybody Welcome, Everything Free."
The posters in the show are all reproductions, but the originals are in the collection of the museum at 1 State St. in New Haven, the town where the K of C was founded in 1882. "Because of the location of the exhibit, the light levels, we can't put originals out there," curator Bethany Sheffer said.
The posters focus not on recruitment of soldiers, but on togetherness and fund-raising. "United Behind the Service Star," from 1918 shows soldiers with flags of all those organizations, with troops marching in the background. "United We Serve" was a multi-organization plea to raise millions of dollars. The "$3 Million War Fund" poster was reproduced on a stamp.
Wesleyan's Davison Art Center
"Call to Action: American Posters in World War I" will open at the Davison Art Center on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown on Sept. 11 with a free reception at 5 p.m. The 30 posters in the show, selected from the university's own collection, "recruited soldiers, celebrated shipbuilding, called for women war workers, and urged homemakers to prepare alternative foods so wheat could be shipped to the army and allies overseas ... reinforced ideals of masculinity and femininity, as well as the integration of immigrants into a unified concept of American identity," according to the gallery.