Women and War: Feminine Imagery in World War I Posters

October 17, 2018–March 10, 2019

Feminine allure was one of the most common features of advertising and marketing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the artists and illustrators drafted into poster design understood well how to use this form of visual persuasion.

Organized to commemorate the centennial of World War I, this installation features a new rotation of World War I posters from the collection, focusing on the power of the poster—specifically those featuring illustrations of women—to galvanize public opinion and support the country’s war efforts.

Posters were the foremost method of marketing in the early 20th century. Improvements in the printing process and the art of chromolithography allowed mass-production in various sizes and increased visual appeal. The U.S. government’s public information committee formed a Division of Pictorial Publicity in 1917 to merge this popular form of advertising with key messages about the war. The chairman asked Charles Dana Gibson, President of the Society of Illustrators, to recruit the country’s best artists to volunteer their creativity to the war effort. American painters, designers, illustrators, and cartoonists donated their time and expertise to create 700 poster designs for 58 separate government departments and committees without any payment for their work. Many of the resulting posters, distributed at libraries and mounted on storefronts, appealed to the heightened sentiments of the population with dramatic images of women. 

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Feminine allure was one of the most common features of advertising and marketing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the artists and illustrators drafted into poster design understood well how to use this form of visual persuasion. The messages implied by these female figures are often more complex than the simple adage “sex sells.” Several archetypes of women, often in combination, can be identified on World War I posters. Allegorical representations of Liberty or Columbia represented abstract, nationalistic ideals. Women as victims provoked a chivalric response in men and allowed recruits to see themselves as protectors, not killers in peril themselves. Sensualized women tempted would-be recruits with the potential excitement of travel overseas, again romanticizing the reality they would face in battle. Posters selling war bonds needed to appeal to men and women. One of the more unique images of the war invites women to imagine themselves as Joan of Arc, saving their own country by purchasing bonds.

At the height of the suffrage movement, posters showing Red Cross and other female war workers gave American women new models for imagining their lives. Posters galvanized women to action on the home front and to see even the traditionally feminine chore of cooking their family’s meals as a patriotic duty. In the campaign to promote rationing, women were not only the primary audience for the posters, they were also recruited to distribute them and train other women in cooking with less flour and sugar. Women’s growing sphere of influence outside the home during the war helped men and women gain a greater appreciation of the contributions women could make to society given more freedom and voice.

Haskell Coffin. Joan of Arc Saved France, ca. 1914–18. Chromolithograph. Collection of the Hudson River Museum (INV.5645).

Selected Press

"Long before Rosie the Riveter, there were other women who graced the front of war posters."

World War I Posters Tell Women’s Side of the Battle Riverdale Press