For years President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed the virtues of American neutrality. Consequently, in 1917, he faced a dilemma - how to convince the public that American intervention in Europe was now necessary. His solution, less than a week after the United States declared war on Germany, was to assemble a Committee on Public Information. The CPI's sole mission was to gain popular support for America's entry into war.
Wilson picked George Creel, a muckraking journalist from Missouri, to head the organization. Under Creel's leadership, the CPI carried out activities designed to stir America's fervor for war. The Four-Minute Men, one of Creel's most successful creations, was a volunteer group of thousands of men who visited meetings and movie theaters across the country to make pro-war speeches. Both a Films Division and a News Division were established to help get out the war message. What was missing, Creel saw, was a way to reach those Americans who might not read newspapers, attend meetings or watch movies. For this task, Creel created the Division of Pictorial Publicity.
Charles Dana Gibson was America's most popular illustrator - and an ardent supporter of the war. When Creel asked him to assemble a group of artists to help design posters for the government, Gibson was more than eager to help. Famous illustrators such as James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Pennell and N. C. Wyeth were brought together to produce some of World War I's most lasting images. These patriotic illustrations promoted such causes as armed forces enlistment, food conservation and the purchase of Liberty Bonds. The artists - who could normally command upwards of several thousand dollars for their efforts - donated their time and work.
Over the next 18 months, the CPI's Division of Pictorial Publicity produced over 1,400 works seen by millions on billboards across the country. Some illustrations appealed to the public's patriotic side, but others incorporated shocking anti-German imagery to exploit and encourage Americans' fear and hatred of the enemy.
Enjoy a sampling of these posters by selecting a thumbnail below.