Updated: Apr 9, 2020
After writing about citizen mask making last week and how it reminded me of WWII efforts on the home front, I’m now seeing lots of references to WWII in connection with the fight against COVID-19. The idea that everyone must work together to beat the enemy was promoted heavily then, as now. More and more posters are bubbling up on social media and many are especially inventive in the ways in which they re-use iconic images and phrases from WWII (and some from WPA posters). Like the Wash Your Hands image on the left made by Brian Wilson, the posters emphasize cleanliness, teamwork, social distancing, making do with less, and supporting our troops - in the current situation, of course, our troops are healthcare workers on the front lines in hospitals, clinics, care homes, etc. as well as essential workers in grocery stores, post offices, food delivery, public works employees, and so many more. I spoke with Wilson and asked him why he thought these updated WWII posters are striking such a chord with people. He said, "As for the posters, I think it's one the few types of advertising/propaganda that applies to everyone. Everyone could look at the poster and see how the message applied to them personally and it resonated with them.
Today, we recognize the phrases and styles instantly. In a way, they were an early meme". See below for examples of some of the new posters.
Reviewing posters from WWII, however, is a reminder of many of the inequities of that era. Women for instance, are often portrayed as vessels of disease, or gossips, African Americans or other minorities are almost completely absent, and some minorities, those of Asian descent specifically, were horribly demonized. A National Archives exhibit, Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from WWII addresses these issues. The label for a poster (scroll down after clicking) about a loose-lipped female relates how a female letter-writer from Hawaii objected to the poster. She wrote about her objections to the Office of War Information, "American women who are knitting, rolling bandages, working long hours at war jobs and then carrying on with `women`s work` at home--in short, taking over the countless drab duties to which no salary and no glory are attached, resent these unwarranted and presumptuous accusations which have no basis in fact, but from the time-worn gags of newspaper funny men." Another poster included in the exhibit features an African American soldier, and is accompanied by this label: "At the beginning of the war, African Americans could join the Navy but could serve only as messmen. Doris ("Dorie") Miller joined the Navy and was in service on board the U.S.S. West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Restricted to the position of messman, he received no gunnery training. But during the attack, at great personal risk, he manned the weapon of a fallen gunman and succeeded in hitting Japanese planes. He was awarded the Navy Cross, but only after persistent pressure from the black press." Many of the new COVID-19 versions of classic WWII posters thankfully are more inclusive see below for examples. The posters below were made by Rob Walker. Both gave permission for us to share them.
During WWII posters were everywhere - on public walls, at grocery stores, post offices, schools. Have you seen any of these newly adapted images posted anywhere? What kinds of motivating messages are you seeing in your daily life? The Museum is currently collecting Greenbelters photos, experiences, and mementos of this extraordinary time. If you come across something you'd like to share, get in touch at email@example.com. More on our efforts in an upcoming #museumfromhome!