“A poster should be a sermon in lines and colors”: Gerrit A. Beneker’s World War I-era posters of laborers

Gerrit A. Beneker painting at an easel, 1919 (Archives of American Art, Washington, DC; note my correction of year).

The story of American labor in World War I is pretty well known. With Europe at war, orders for manufactured goods increased. With the end of European immigration, the American labor movement tightened. An increasing cost of living impelled workers to change jobs frequently in the quest for higher wages and better working conditions. Record labor strikes reveal this restlessness: 1,593 in 1915, 3,789 in 1916. Between the United States’ declaration of war on April 6, 1917, and October 1917, over 3000 labor strikes were called. The metalworking and shipbuilding trades led the way, followed by workers in the textiles and clothing industries, in lumbering, and in coal and copper mining.

The tight labor market lessened owners’ resistance to trade unionism. The Wilson administration also knew that the war required workers and that it had to work with unions–but not all unions. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration desired to work only with “responsible” unions, such as the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers. Wilson expected both labor and industry to maintain “existing standards”—that is, not take advantage of the war emergency.

It is no surprise, then, that government and corporate war-related propaganda featured men working in vital war industries. Wilson had adopted a corporatist approach to this important sector, creating, for example, the Emergency Fleet Corporation at the war’s outset to coordinate naval shipbuilding. Wilson’s propaganda chief, George Creel, and his Committee on Public Information would produce images and texts featuring war industries laborers throughout the war.

Photo of Gerrit A. Beneker with The Mixer poster
Harris and Ewing, U.S. Department of Labor. Artist [Gerrit A. Beneker] with WWI Poster, 1918 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC).

Not all such propaganda was produced by the federal government, however. Companies advertised patriotic support and exhorted employees to work for the nation’s cause through targeted public advertising and in-house publications. One artist, Grand Rapids, Michigan, native Gerrit A. Beneker (1882-1934), found work in June 1918 as an “expert aid” during the construction of emergency office buildings for the Army and Navy in Washington, DC. As a magazine illustrator before the war, Beneker specialized in depictions of laborers in a variety of industries, especially railroads, automobiles, and even baseball players for Baseball Magazine. It’s why he was hired to produce images of concrete workers employed by the Turner Construction Company for its company publication The Mixer.

From Activities of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department: World War 1917-1918 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1921).

The construction of the War and Navy Buildings  (along Constitution Avenue in Potomac Park), requiring 3400 laborers (of which 1600 were “common” or unskilled), was being hampered by the loss of unskilled laborers each week. According to the October 1918 American Magazine of Art, Beneker’s purpose was to keep unskilled workers working, “to show them the value of their work as a national asset, to preserve patriotism generally through the medium of art. …” Beneker produced six posters “emphasizing to the laboring man the value of his work and bringing to his attention the fact that he too is enlisted in the army of fighters–is helping in short to win the war” (“Gerrit Beneker’s Labor Posters”).

Beneker used real workers as models for his images. He mingled with them, allowed them into his small onsite studio, and created drawings of the workers for the company’s weekly paper. Believing that “art is the universal language,” Beneker argued that laborers, bereft of time to “read lengthy editorials and articles,” could be persuaded by pictures and posters. He equated posters with sermons.

A poster should be a sermon in lines and colors. Its results are not directly obvious, no more so than the results of an inspiring sermon from the pulpit; but results in both are obtained, even if we can not see them immediately. (“Gerrit Beneker’s Labor Posters”)

The building’s laborers weren’t treated to sermons, but their employer worked to keep them on the job through other promotions and activities. As the federal government reported in 1921:

The contractor brought to bear every worthy incentive on his workmen of all ranks to maintain a high standard of output. To this end inspirational and “welfare” activities of a variety adapted to conditions were carried on throughout the life of the job. Graphic charts were exhibited showing the weekly progress of construction. Records of conspicuous gangs were posted and higher records encouraged. Frequent opportunities were afforded for the entire personnel to assemble in rallies and mass meetings at midday or in the evening. A patriotic spirit was fostered at such gatherings by means of addresses by persons of prominence, singing of popular airs, band music, and the like. Evening entertainments such as boxing bouts, pie-eating matches, and dancing competitions proved helpful in maintaining a degree of morale. An illustrated paper abounding in cartoons, portraits of noteworthy gangs and individuals, personal references, and items of project news was issued weekly. An illustrator [Beneker] of proved ability was engaged to reside on the job and produce posters and other pictorial work for the stimulation of enthusiasm. A “job flag,” displaying an eagle poised on a broom, was designed by him and flown during work shifts. The sale of war savings stamps was pushed with considerable publicity. (Activities of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department)

Concrete Ammunition / Second Line Defense
Gerrit A. Beneker, Concrete Ammunition / Second Line Defense, 1918 (National Museum of American History, Washington, DC).

Concrete Ammunition/Second Line Defense (1918), depicting an African American worker pushing a wheelbarrow in front of the incomplete War and Navy Buildings, was created as an insert for The Mixer. (The buildings were to be fireproof so steel-reinforced concrete was used.) Beneker is also the only World War I poster artist I have come across who portrayed African American workers. African Americans comprised the majority of the 7,500 unskilled laborers who were hired over the five-and-a-half months it took to complete the buildings. No poster produced by the Committee on Public Information depicted African Americans; in this instance, a federal contractor invested funds into intra-company propaganda to ensure the contract’s completion. Still and all, Beneker’s portrayal of this African American lacks the individuality of his portrayals of white workers. (Later in the war Beneker produced for the United War Work Campaign an image of a YMCA worker and a soldier, both black—another rare depiction.)

sure we'll finish the job
Gerrit A. Beneker, SURE! We’ll Finish the Job, 1918; (Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI).

Beneker’s best-known work was SURE! We’ll Finish the Job, produced in late 1918 and used in the last Liberty Loan drive—known as the Victory Loan Drive–in spring, 1919. He recorded in his “Work” ledger on December 9, 1918:


Delivered to Mr. Jos. Deutsch, by hand at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, N.Y. two original oil full color posters, 30” x 40” each, on speculation. Rec’d as per agreement $100. each. $200—

The next entry, dated December 12, reads:

One poster, of workman, hand in pocket, wearing Liberty Loan Buttons, was unanimously accepted by 12 heads of 12 Federal Reserve Districts assembled at Atlantic City. Congratulations by phone, telegram, and letter from Mr. Deutsch and Mr. R. W. Emerson, chief, Division of Publications, Treasury Dept. Washington, D.C.

According to Editor & Publisher (9 April 1919), Beneker had

not forgotten the heroism of American labor in the cause of war, in his splendidly conceived and well-painted poster, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job.” He knows that such men of brains, bone, and sturdy tissue, built the guns for the two-millions overseas, laid the ship bottoms which sent them thither, provided for their amazing needs of munitions and stores, supported them with unrivalled civic morale, dug deeply into those overalls pockets for the previous Liberty Loan bond sales, each of which screamed across the Atlantic to the enemy: “OUR BILLIONS BACK OUR BOYS AND THEY WILL WHIP YOU TO DEATH.” Pinned to the breast of Beneker’s happy-faced workman are the significant buttons of the four great Treasury campaigns—four chances to serve as best he could his country and four proofs of that service done.

This poster had another meaning, though. Produced and distributed in 1919, the greatest strike year in American history, “finishing the job” meant staying on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 20 percent of the national labor force—over 4,160,000—walked off the job in more than 3,630 strikes in 1919.

Men are Square
Cover, The Hydraulic Press, featuring Gerrit A. Beneker’s Men Are Square, July 1919 (Corcoran Artist Vertical File Collection, American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, Washington, DC. Original oil painting, Westmoreland Museum of Art, Greensburg, PA).

By the time he met Secretary Glass Beneker was working at the Hydraulic Pressed Steel Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio. He was paid $1000 per month for five months’ work to use “Art” as “morale in the labor-capital situation” (Beneker, Record Book of Sales, Archives of American Art). The workers at the Hydraulic Pressed Steel Corporation did not participate in the Great Steel Strike, organized by the American Federation of Labor, that began in September 1919 and stretched to January 1920. This likely was proof to Beneker about the power of Art and the Corporation’s management system.

Beneker’s labor paintings, though, like his poster valorizing laborers’ patriotism and generosity, did not quell the seething labor unrest throughout the steel industry at war’s end. Indeed, these ennobling depictions of labor, like other government propaganda, stressed workers’ “essential role” in the “war for democracy.” Workers had come to believe that the fruits of democracy would continue after the war. Buoyed by this idea and the increasing number of union members outraged at the cost of living and working conditions, over 350,000 workers walked off the job and crippled the industry. The Great Steel Strike halted much of the nation’s steel production.

What they received, however, was repression and a red scare targeting immigrants. Owners controlled the public sphere, preventing public meetings and parades and planting in newspapers stories that the strike was over in other places. Anti-radical propaganda, again, had swayed hearts and minds.


Activities of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department: World War 1917-1918. Washington, DC: GPO, 1921.

Beneker, Gerrit A. “Art—A Constructive Force.” The American Magazine of Art 10:10 (August 1919): 377-385.

Best of the New Victory Loan Posters.” Editor & Publisher 51:2 (17 April 1919): 7.

Brody, David. Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. With a New Bibliographical Afterword. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918. New York: International Publishers, 1987.

Foster, William Z. The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons. New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc., 1920.

Gerrit A. Beneker Papers, 1869-1972. Archives of American Art, Washington, DC.

Gerrit Beneker’s Labor Posters.” The American Magazine of Art 9:12 (October 1918): 479-482.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. 1980; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Work and Fight.” The Outlook 120:7 (October 9, 1918): 204.

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