War and Speech: Propaganda, Patriotism, and Dissent in the Great War


UPDATE: WKAR’s Scott Pohl interviewed me about the exhibition: http://wkar.org/post/msu-museum-exhibition-chronicles-ww1

“The battle of the fences” is what the young newspaperman-turned-information-czar George Creel called his propaganda campaign on behalf of the United States government. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress commited the nation to what was then called the Great War. One week later, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), naming Creel as its head.

With a $1,250,000 budget (and more to be had from President Wilson), Creel quickly set his propaganda machine to work. Artists and advertisers in the Committee’s Division of Pictorial Publicity began producing images and copy to sell the Great War to Americans. By the time the CPI ended its work on August 21, 1919, the Division had created 1,438 artworks upon which millions of posters were produced.

Imagine my delight, then, when soon after my arrival at the Michigan State University Museum in January 2014, I discovered nearly 500 World War I posters not yet represented in our collections management system. But there they were, in large acid-free folders in five map case drawers. With the exception of about 70 posters, all had come from the Chamberlain Memorial Museum in Three Oaks, Berrien County, Michigan, when that museum’s holdings had been given the MSU Museum in 1952.

The Chamberlain Memorial Museum had been founded in 1916 and the community’s enthusiasm to build a collection is evident in its accession books and especially in its World War I materials. War is historic, and the citizens of Three Oaks freely gave posters, pins, and other propaganda materials to their museum not only to build the institution but to declare their patriotism. Art and encyclopedic museums also held exhibitions of  propaganda posters during the Great War, in so doing becoming what many museums today are becoming: sites of civic engagement.

Some posters were given in duplicates, the runs off the lithographic presses evident sometimes in the matched errors of color and placement from one poster to the next. Two posters are actually paintings (oil on masonite board) and we are still working to discover the artist “M.A.S.” These paintings likely were created as part of a high school or community competition. Public schools in Michigan and across the nation held such contests to promote patriotism and history knowledge.

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Not all the posters in the MSU Museum’s collection are American made. A few were produced by artists unaffiliated with the Division of Pictorial Publicity. Julius “Cozzy” Gotsdanker produced for the United States Navy recruiting center in Detroit, Michigan, a “swashbuckling” image to persuade men to enlist (see right and see my blog post on Gotsdanker).

War and Speech: Propaganda, Patriotism, and Dissent in the Great War opened on 11 November 2017 at the MSU Museum. The exhibition features 47 posters in conversation with the politics of the Great War era, exploring the extent of free speech in the nation. In our era of fake news and alternative facts Americans need literacy in both media and history.  Over the next year, we’ll be offering programs in the Museum and across the MSU campus. I hope that War and Speech offers visitors an opportunity to engage and perhaps improve these forms of literacy.

Creel called his efforts in the Committee on Public Information ““a publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.” I can’t and wouldn’t make such a claim, but I will be featuring posters and other artifacts in future blog posts here. Hope you’ll return to read them.


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