A century ago, World War I turned the food industry inside out. Instead of urging consumers to buy wheat, meat, sugar, and fats, manufacturers and the federal government promoted eating less of those foods so they could be sent to Europe to feed soldiers and assist Allies fighting Germany. Posters advocating “Meatless Mondays,” “Wheatless Wednesdays,” and other food conservation efforts were distributed around the United States.
The Connecticut Agricultural College, which would eventually become UConn, was among the nation’s land grant agricultural institutions that helped to train nutritionists to teach women on the home front how to prepare meals with other foods through its Extension Service, while contributing to the conservation program that was part of the nation’s overall war effort.
Among the most critical communication vehicles used to spread the word of food conservation were posters created by the nation’s leading illustration artists – Herbert Andrew Paus, Ellsworth Young, and Harvey Dunn, among others – whose credits included The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, and Scribner’s.
An exhibition of posters, photos, and artifacts, “Victory is a Question of Stamina: Posters from the First World War,” opens at the William Benton Museum of Art on Tuesday, Sept. 2, with an opening reception on Thursday, September 4, and continues through October 12. The exhibition, which marks the centennial of World War I and the U.S. role in the war, focuses on the activities of women on both home and fighting fronts.
The posters exhibited are from the Benton’s permanent collection of 212 posters donated in 1977 by Robert Elson ’68 (BUS). Photographs in the exhibition are from Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. National Archives. Artifacts such as Nurse Army Corps uniforms and an American Red Cross flag are from the Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History at the School of Nursing.
“The idea of the poster is significant. It was a medium very easily reproduced,” says Carla Galfano ’05 (SFA), ’11 MA, curator of the exhibition. “Advertising images are easily legible, and designed to be provocative. These were some of the best and highest-paid illustrators of the time doing the work for free.”
The United States remained neutral on the combat front during the first three years of the war in Europe, but supported the Allies fighting against Germany with humanitarian aid, including activities organized by the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which was led by Herbert Hoover. When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, Hoover was appointed to lead the U.S. Food Administration by President Woodrow Wilson, with the goal of voluntarily reducing domestic food consumption in order to supply the Allies with food, as well as send food to soldiers.
“In a lot of ways the poster is what forces the conversation for people to think more about the issue of food consumption,” says Allison Horrocks ’11 MA, a doctoral candidate in history who collaborated on the exhibition. “Within the War Department, they hired nutritionists and women trained in home economics to take scientific knowledge and translate it into recipes. They were using agricultural colleges to translate it.”
She adds that in Connecticut, canning food was an important skill. The Connecticut Agricultural College Extension Service conducted community-based canning events to provide information about nutrition and get people talking about conservation. The exhibition also includes canning materials from the period on loan from the Hampton Historical Society.
A photo from the Dodd Research Center shows a cooking lab in Grove Cottage, a women’s dormitory, with a group of students being trained to be teachers or extension agent specialists in home economics. On the wall behind the students, two posters are clearly visible, one of which is also included in the exhibition.
Among the World War I posters are some that are based on familiar works of art. William McKee’s “The Spirit of ’18: The World Cry: Food, Keep the Home Garden Going,” is based on the 1875 oil painting, “The Spirit of ’76” by Archibald MacNeal Willard, which depicts two drummers and a fifer on the battlefield during the American Revolution. A Red Cross poster by Alonzo Earl Foringer, “The Greatest Mother in the World,” evokes the 1499 Michelangelo sculpture, Pietà, which is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
“Any good artist knows what came before him,” says Galfano, noting that these posters were extremely effective: Red Cross membership went from 100,000 to 33 million, a third of the U.S. population, and with the War Saving Stamp program, the whole country was mobilized financially. “The American government was marketing and branding the war effort with state-of-the-art media,” she adds. “It was kind of like the Facebook of 1917.”
There will be two gallery talks during the exhibition, including one on UConn’s role in World War I by Horrocks, who is teaching a history class this semester on “Women & Gender in the U.S., 1850-Present.” The Salon at the Benton on Friday, Sept. 19, will also feature posters to provoke conversation on the topic “What’s Art Got to Do with Power and Propaganda?”
For more information on the exhibition and programs, go to the Benton Museum website.