World War I sacrifices for a greater good

Government posters urged Americans to save food for troops and for civilians in war-torn Europe.

The image is haunting: against a background of imploring children with outstretched arms, a gaunt woman cradles an infant in one arm and holds a little girl close with the other. Although it looks like a museum-worthy work of art, this picture on a World War I poster exhorted viewers, “Don’t waste food while others starve!”

One week after entering the war in April 1917, the U.S. government established a Committee on Public Information (CPI) to involve the nation in the war effort. The committee’s materials included a poster campaign designed to help the U.S. Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, in its drive to feed the troops and ensure an adequate food supply for the civilian population at home and abroad. “It was considered effective at instilling patriotic feelings and actions of self-sacrifice,” said Susan Wheeler, curator of prints and drawings at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, which displayed Yale’s collection of World War I food posters in the fall of 2011.

The poster campaign was overseen by the Division of Pictorial Publicity, led by Charles Dana Gibson, one of the best-known artists of the time and creator of the Gibson Girl. The division invited other top artists and illustrators to contribute designs. Every Friday the group and government officials met over dinner to decide what kind of poster was needed. By the end of the war, 700 poster designs had been submitted on a variety of topics, including food. The cost to the government was only $13,000, as the artists donated their time and materials.

George Creel, a Denver journalist who chaired the CPI, later recalled, “I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the indifferent eye.” Indeed, because the posters were widely displayed in shops, schools, and other locations, it was impossible to escape their messages.

The earliest CPI posters were simple text designs instructing the public not to waste food, with tips on which items to conserve to “serve the cause of freedom.” Such famous figures as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Joan of Arc appeared as symbols of patriotism and self-sacrifice.

Images from the front lines helped the public visualize the ravages of war-torn Europe. Eight artists commissioned as captains accompanied the American Expeditionary Forces overseas and produced more than 300 drawings, including scenes of a food convoy winding through a snowy landscape and an American soldier standing over a fallen German. These images helped the public understand how small sacrifices at the dinner table might be transformed into meaningful contributions to the war effort.

Food posters were tied to such other media as pamphlets, films, poetry, and music. In his poem “Thoughts Inspired by a War-time Billboard,” Wallace Irwin memorialized a poster by the artist Wallace Morgan in the line “Wallie Morg’s ‘Feed a Fighter’ lurks deep in his trench….” The popular marching song, “We’re Off to Can the Kaiser,” was adapted by the Belgian artist J. Paul Verrees for one of the best-known posters of the National War Garden Commission, which urged citizens to “Can Vegetables, Fruit and the Kaiser Too.” The poster was reissued in 1919 after the end of the war with the heading, “The Kaiser Is Canned.”

The medical library’s 10 food posters are part of its larger collection of about 500 posters related to public health and nutrition. They can be viewed online at;c=mdposter.

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