Art for War’s Sake: Laura Brey and the Workings of American World War I Propaganda Posters


Much scholarly work devoted to American World War I propaganda posters begins with discussions of the Committee on Public Information, established by President Woodrow Wilson only a week after the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. The Committee’s published accounts date the creation of its Division of Pictorial Publicity at the same time.

According to art historian Eric Van Schaack, the Committee’s internal records tell a different story.

George Creel originally asked artist Charles Dana Gibson, president of the Society of Illustrators and creator of the “Gibson Girl,” to gather together a committee of artists and illustrators to aid government agencies with their publicity  campaigns. It was not until November of that year, however, the Committee’s Division of Pictorial Publicity was formally up and running, one of thirty-seven units that together would sell the war to the nation. By the end of its existence, the Division of Pictorial Publicity produced 1,438 images for posters, placards, and other print media.

The lesson here, perhaps, is not to depend only on a propagandist’s published records and recollections (although I’m very fond of Creel’s title for his chapter on the Division, “The Battle of the Fences,” in his How We Advertised America [1920]). Rather, we should take the opportunity to reconsider our reliance on written accounts of this first-of-its-kind government agency. (Being the first of anything shapes the story that makes its way into the historical canon [and Wikipedia]). Because of this thinking, historians have at times misattributed posters to the Division of Pictorial Publicity.

For example, in his Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda (2009), Alan Axelrod writes

Many recruiting posters made a special appeal to conscience. Laura Brey, one of a handful of female artists recruited by Gibson and Casey, created an elegant scene showing a young man in civilian suit, with stiff celluloid collar and trim bowtie, standing in the shade of a darkened room, looking somewhat wistfully through a large window at a sun-drenched parade of khaki-uniformed doughboys who march between the vivid red, white, and blue of an American flag. “On Which Side of the Window are YOU?” the caption demands (144).

“Gibson and Casey” here are Charles Dana Gibson, Creel’s choice to gather together artists in the war’s cause, and F. D. Casey, vice chairman and secretary of the Division of Pictorial Publicity. They never recruited Laura Brey. So let’s do just that for our discussion here.

Recruiting Laura Brey

Illinois-born Laura Brey (1889 or 1891-1980) was teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago when, in 1917, she entered a contest to create an army and navy recruitment poster. Held from May 9 to June 4, 1917, and open to art students in Chicago at the request of Captain Franklin R. Kenney, head of army recruitment in northern Illinois, this contest was neither novel or unusual. The nation was in the midst of a sort of poster mania, with communities, organizations, and schools holding poster contests for a variety of issues from temperance to healthy babies to women’s suffrage. Fully covered by the nation’s newspapers, these competitions in and of themselves elicited public interest, something that the Division of Pictorial Publicity would sometimes adopt in its poster campaigns: announcing a contest, assigning judges, exhibiting the submissions, selecting winners, and then printing, distributing, and displaying the winning posters.

Captain Kenney was no stranger to poster advertising–or advertising in general. Several months earlier, he had designed a recruitment poster in which he incorporated General George Washington’s call for men said to be used during the Revolutionary War. Newspapers heralded its display on March 14, 1917. This was to be the standard recruitment poster, and the initial order requested 200,000 posters and 100,000 cards.

Library of Congress. NOTE: According to the Typographical Journal 50 (May 1917): 434, this poster was the first war poster made for a government agency which bore the union label (see bottom, center).

Captain Kenney also took advantage of other advertising gimmicks to raise recruitment. When Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film, Joan the Woman, was shown at Chicago’s Colonial Theater in late April 1917, it was accompanied with a recruitment promotion of four young women dressed in armor like Joan of Arc being driven by car around the Loop, stopping in each block with army recruitment officers to urge men to enlist. (Joan the Woman was considered to be war propaganda because it featured a British officer in World War I who finds Joan’s sword and then volunteers for a suicide mission. Joan of Arc would feature in a War Savings Stamps poster in 1918.)

It’s no surprise that Captain Kenney sought new poster designs and advertising strategies to raise recruitment numbers after war was declared. He conveyed some necessary ideas for this appeal to men to the students of the Art Institute of Chicago:

There is a psychology in recruiting advertising which may not at first be apparent to those who have not before considered advertising in this particular field. We have no consideration except for effectiveness. There is in all of us an element that responds to the latent bravery in our blood. That is the thing to reach. No matter how little he is physically, every man conceives of himself, at times, as a fighter. I am not an art critic, but I do know that we want to put up posters for the fighters. This is no moment for symbolic stuff.

Laura Brey’s winning poster design, On Which Side of the Window Are You? has generally been interpreted as one shaming men into action–here, that action is military enlistment. Various art historians and critics have described the man standing in the interior as “epicene” or “elegant” (itself a neutering adjective when applied to men), the image playing on men’s fear of sexual inadequacy.

For example, Elizabeth Prelinger argues the following:

In her provocative 1917 image On Which Side of the Window Are You? Enlist, [Brey] portrayed an elegant young man gazing through a large window while a regiment of robust doughboys marches past. … Brey’s figure observes them timidly and ambivalently; his over-refined mien contrasts starkly with the manliness of the recruits. In effect, the artist conflated the qualities of courage, action, and patriotism with masculinity, an intuition that reflected the times as much as it predicted the postwar backlash in social and political relations between women and men. Brey also referenced here the languid preciousness associated with the old century, especially in Europe. Certain conservative critics of the time fervently hoped that such “decadent” creatures as this young man would be exterminated by the cleansing activity of war, which would restore to health a degenerate Europe.

It seems to me, however, that Brey’s poster image fits to the letter Captain Kenney’s requirements. Captain Kenney’s insight–“No matter how little he is physically, every man conceives of himself, at times, as a fighter”–may have influenced Brey’s design.

Soldier at attention at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

In important ways, the young man’s posture and mien begin to mirror, rather than contrast those of the men marching by the window. All the figures’ heads, facing to the viewer’s left, are tilted, though the inner turmoil represented by the young’s man face contrasts with the stoic visages of the troops. The high collar of the marching men’s uniforms match that of the young man’s celluloid collar–both stiffly unforgiving. The young man’s posture is upright, his narrow shoulders held back, mimicking those processing by. The young man’s proper right hand is curled around his coat lapel, mimicking the soldiers’ grasp of their shouldered rifles or the act of holding a gun sling. Last, the young man’s feet position is the position used by soldiers when standing at attention (as also depicted in the American Revolution recruitment poster reproduced by Captain Kenney). Only his proper left hand, resting in a pocket, belies his mimicry of the soldiers on the other side of the window. The young man may be standing in shadow, but his forward movement–like that of the soldiers–is towards the light through the window. Rather than interpret the poster’s image as a total contrast based on shame or guilt, might it not be the case that the young man is responding “to the latent bravery in our blood?” Outright shame would send the young man further into the shadows. Wouldn’t that undermine the poster’s purpose?

Is the young man experiencing shame, the result of disapproval by others (such as the poster’s viewers), a more internalized guilt or self-reproach, or the emergence of a moral clarity based on the (re)newed requirements of male citizenship–to take up arms in defense of the nation?

Laura Brey won $500 for her poster design. When she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1915, she had earned one of the Frederick Magnus Brand Memorial Prizes for Composition. This poster shows her acumen in that skill. Her poster was published by the National Printing and Engraving Company in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune published a photograph of Brey and her poster, Captain Kenney, and another prize winner, on May 30, 1917. Captain Kenney said of the posters, “Those designs will get men. They’re irresistible.”

brey with poster
Laura Brey (left) poses with her poster. Captain F. R. Kenney stands at center. “Art for War’s Sake,” The Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1918, 2.

The Chicago Commerce also noted that the poster was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago from July 2 to July 31, one of 111 war posters categorized as “army posters, navy, marines, Red Cross, liberty loan and conservation of the soil.” The “committee of selection” included “well-known Chicagoans and two military men.” Brey’s poster, along with the other two winners of the previous contents, were awarded Honorable Mentions. Given the dates of this exhibition, we may safely assume the posters displayed were the result of local, and not national, initiatives.

Of note is the Chicago Commerce’s understanding of the role of the poster and the Art Institute in teaching citizenship in a time of war: “This collection should be seen by young people and by adults who are entering their novitiate in American citizenship. Chicago may well approve the initiative of the management of the institute in thus opportunely awakening creative interest in the production of such moving appeals for service in war as distinguish the designs of this exhibition.” (At Brey’s 1915 graduation ceremony this was exactly the speaker’s topic.)

Laura Brey’s Enlistment

Like so many other artists and illustrators of World War I propaganda posters, Laura Brey’s parents were German. Enlisting in the war effort in any way proved one’s patriotism, regardless of citizenship status. It’s interesting to contemplate how German-born or German-American artists dedicated themselves to war poster design to retain their reputations and employment.

Brey’s other war work included designing Christmas cards for soldiers through the Chicago-area Artists’ Aid to the Red Cross. Interviewed about her work, the “quiet young” Brey explained her “earnest purpose” in creating a Christmas tree card, in so doing revealing her work as proof of her loyalty to the nation.

“You see,” she explained frankly, “I am of German parentage and my kinsmen are most of them in Germany yet. Or they were, rather. They are dead now. But I myself am an American! You understand? An American! And I propose to do my full share as a loyal American citizen. I count it a privilege to be allowed to prove that I am that kind of a citizen! Count on me for anything I can do.”

Not-So-Final Thoughts

Through a focus on the creation and circulation of individual World War I propaganda posters we may explore more fully the impact of these patriotic forms of persuasion. Many posters created for and during World War I were not created under the auspices of the Division of Pictorial Publicity and were not created by artists and illustrators now in the art historical canon. (Anne Classon Knutson explores this in her doctoral dissertation.) States and agencies at times altered the design and message of materials produced by the Committee on Public Information. Military recruitment offices in the nation’s major cities held contests for posters and placards, enlisting professional and amateur artists. Colleges and high schools held competitions for patriotic posters and slogan cards which have now disappeared but may be traceable through newspapers, yearbooks, and other print media. Even before the United States declared war, collections of European war posters were put on view by private individuals raising relief funds and by museums, influencing American poster design and messaging. More research attention to the artists and illustrators who, like so many foreign-born residents of the United States during the Great War, had to prove loyalty, might yield new insights into the choices of content and design. What this all means is that a more complex understanding of American World War I propaganda awaits.


Art Institute of Chicago. Exhibition of Posters for National Service, July 2 to July 31, 1917.

Axelrod, Alan. Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

“Closing Ceremonies of the School.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 9:6 (1 October 1915): 82.

Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1920.

Fraser, Bruce. “Yankees at War: Social Mobilization on the Connecticut Homefront, 1917-1918.” Ph.D. diss. Columbia University 1976.

Heron, Grace. “Harbingers of Cheer.” The Red Cross Magazine 13:2 (February 1918): 51.

Knutson, Anne Classen. “Breasts, Brawn and Selling a War: American World War I Propaganda Posters, 1917-1918.” Ph.D. diss. University of Pittsburgh 1997.

_____. “The Enemy Imaged: Visual Configuration of Race and Ethnicity in World War I Propaganda Posters.” In Race and the Production of Modern American Nationalism, ed. Reynolds J. Scott-Childress, 195-220 (quotation, 200). New York: Garland, 1999.

Lubin, David M. Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Luckett, Moya. Cinema and Community: Progressivism, Exhibition, and Film Culture in Chicago, 1907-1917. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014.

Prelinger, Elizabeth, with Barton C. Hacker. “’The Spirit of Woman-Power’: Representations of Women in World War I Posters.” In Burton C. Hacker and Margaret Vining, eds., A Companion to Women’s Military History (quotation, 468). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

Van Schaak, Eric. “The Division of Pictorial Publicity in World War I.” Design Issues 22:1 (Winter 2006): 32-45.

“War Posters Call to Service.” Chicago Commerce 13 (13 July 1917): 3.

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