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Essay, Therese Heyman, Curator
In the ambitious poster program directed to the home front, there were also miscalculations and missed opportunities, one of which has become legend in its now obvious lack of judgment. Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous 1941 speech in which he named and described the four freedoms—of the press and religion, and from fear and want—the well-known illustrator Norman Rockwell offered to paint images illustrating these concepts and then adapt them for posters. Initially his offer was turned down, possibly because many OWI designers were not illustrators, as had been the case in the government's war poster campaign of 1915, but artists aligned with fine art traditions.13 Not surprisingly, the Saturday Evening Post, which had commissioned much of Rockwell's previous work, had him do these paintings which first appeared on successive covers in 1943; their effectiveness was instantly evident.14

In that same year, Rockwell's Four Freedoms were issued as posters, each in several sizes. One such edition became the very successful incentive given to purchasers of war bonds. Possibly no set of posters has been reproduced more or more widely collected—even today the set is valued highly. The preparatory study for the first in the series, Save Freedom of Speech, an oil on board given to a Curtis Publishing employee, went to auction in 1997, attracting wide interest and a high price.

If the immediate popularity of Norman Rockwell's scenes of small-town neighbors acting out the Four Freedoms in intimate American views came as a surprise to government officials who approved poster designs, the need to use posters was never in question. What had changed was the direction of the postermaking process. In 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, the Society of Illustrators met to offer its help in the war effort. Its president, Charles Dana Gibson, had received a telegram from George Creel, the director of the Committee on Public Information, requesting help. Soon after, the Division of Pictorial Publicity was created. A way to reach the public, including those who might otherwise not attend meetings or watch propaganda movies, was required:

The billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye. . . . What we wanted—what we had to have—were posters that represented the best work of the best artists—posters into which the masters of the pen and brush poured heart and soul as well as genius. Looking the field over, we decided upon Charles Dana Gibson as the man best suited to lead the army of artists.15

In all, the Pictorial Division proposed 700 designs to fifty-eight separate government agencies and patriotic committees, and thus made their influence felt in the broader war effort. The artists usually donated their work—a noteworthy and altruistic act, since many of them could market sketches for prices ranging from $1000 to $10,000. With this innovative first-time use of artists to make war posters, the War Department recognized the value of art in its role to form public opinion—what we recognize today as an aspect of propaganda.

Other government initiatives also took form and reached the public through posters. The Works Projects Administration offered advice on safety, health, and other topics of general interest, often employing artists who had immigrated to the United States in mid-1930s. By World War II, more than 5,000 posters had been issued, but many more were submitted for consideration. Some of these pencil sketches still exist and are kept in the National Archives.


Methods & Techniques
Few of the many terms identifying the reproduction medium of posters are easily understood. Each collection favors its own vocabulary for indicating the processes, using qualifications such as "photo," "mechanical," even "commercial," and "color." In addition, many forms of printing coexist. Some of the most effective posters are issued from artist's collectives, like the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF),16 which pragmatically seek out the most economical and quickest printing and distribution method. Wes Wilson points out the contrast between the relatively labor-intensive West Coast rock posters and the later high-speed press runs of huge numbers of posters by commercially knowledgeable artists like Peter Max.17

Like many nineteenth-century photographs, posters were issued by studios and companies for whom the postermaker often worked anonymously. This was true for the Cincinnati-based Strobridge Lithography Co., an active posterworks:

In a word we shall not be far wrong in saying that lithography in America was for a long time wholly commercial, and yet the great . . . firm of Strobridge was a sort of cradle for many of the more distinguished younger Americans, who as journeyman lithographers received their first training.18
It is not easy to trace their individual designs, for names never appear upon the gorgeous and rather gaudy Barnum and Forepaugh posters, in which for a period Americans found most of their art.

Early Penfield and Bradley posters were produced by color lithography, but eventually this method was phased out because it was too cumbersome and labor intensive, and, in the hands of some, rougher in its linear silhouette. But the use of photography and offset became available to postermakers in the 1920s, making larger runs possible, lowering costs, and speeding the whole production process. In recent years, the computer and desktop publishing have again transformed postermaking. As each new software program permits more choices, posters surprise us with their expanding possibilities.

In the 1990s, a series of ever-changing technologies encouraged creative individual solutions to problems of communication. This technology affects the role of posters in art, public relations, advertising, and community group advocacy. Since the 1950s, supplanted by television as a means of reaching out to large groups, posters have increasingly been targeted to specific facets of a population—according to ethnicity or by age, for example. Museums now commonly produce posters to promote and commemorate special exhibitions, and it is possible to announce and advertise with ever greater facility these exhibitions by means of ever simpler digital production systems.

New ways to create posters and the intensive use of advertising combine to suggest that posters in the 1990s and beyond will be produced at an increasing rate. What makes the present survey of American posters both compelling and memorable to the larger public is the range and originality of many poster series. But graphically striking as they are, it is their content—the reminders of past events, film stars, the need to fight wars—that captures our attention.

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13. Rawls, p. 149. [Back to Top]

14. For a fascinating account of these events see Stuart Murray and James McCabe, Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms: Images that Inspire a Nation (Stockbridge, Mass.: Berkshire House Publishers, 1993). [Back to Top]

15. Rawls, p. 149–50. [Back to Top]

16. Previously known as the Rebel Chicano Air Force, the group's name is a send-up of the acronym used for the Royal Canadian Air Force. [Back to Top]

17. Grushkin, p. 88. [Back to Top]

18. Joseph Pennell, as quoted in Merten, p. 2. [Back to Top]

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