Heartstrings and History in Posters

Often, when one thinks of vintage posters, visions of colorful, bold, graphically pleasing images dance around the mind. Some of the most popular and well-known images depict whimsical characters tempting the world with their intoxicating spirits, tasty treats, sweet rides, and fashionable finds.

There's a theme of lightheartedness and humor that runs through many of these vintage posters and serves as a reminder that the turn of the century was an incredibly important time in the history of advertising. The advent of branding, the use of slogans and the unforgettable graphic images that helped sell product one hundred plus years ago continues to define and inspire the advertising world today.

While so many of these vintage posters make us smile with their carefree and fun messages, there were many that were more serious in tone. This is especially true during the First World War in the U.S. One of the most dramatically somber posters created during this time is a very rare and truly remarkable poster called Enlist by Fred Spear. It is an iconic American image from the First World War depicting a mother clutching her baby as they drown from the sinking of the Lusitania. It's not only a beautiful piece of art, but it has great importance in our entering the war.

The British ocean liner, RMS Lusitania, was sunk on May 7, 1915 as it departed New York bound for Liverpool. Of the nearly 2,000 people on board, 159 were American. Near Ireland, the captain of the Lusitania slowed their course due to fog, and a German submarine (known as a u-boat), shot at the Lusitania, which tipped heavily to one side and quickly sank. Most people were unable to reach lifeboats in time, and 1,198 people died. The shocking number of civilian casualties inflamed sentiment in the United States, and swayed the country’s intention to enter into the World War.

In his speech, “Peace Without Victory” (1917) President Woodrow Wilson recognized the importance of maintaining open seas that allowed for safe trade and travel:

“And the paths of the sea must alike in law and in fact be free....The free, constant, unthreatened intercourse of nations is an essential part of the process of peace.... Peace cannot be had without concession and sacrifice.”

Fred Spear's 1915 drawing of a drowning mother and child was inspired by a newspaper account of sinking of the Lusitania. It also conjures visual references to the Madonna and Child, and the innocence of childhood, now lost through war. The simple text, “Enlist” points to the purpose of this poster – to encourage young men to avenge the loss of women and children at the hands of the German enemy.

However, due to the incredibly sad nature of this image and the emotions it conjured in people in the United States, the poster was pulled from circulation. While the artwork is so beautiful, it was just much too sad. The subject matter, imagery and limited production of this poster make Fred Spear's Enlist one of the rarest WWI posters in existence today.

Propaganda posters were used widely during the First World War to solicit support, whether political, financial, or personal. Approximately two years later, another poster depicting images of the Lusitania appears, reminding Americans of the sinking of the ship, and the loss of lives, asking the question "shall this continue?"


This poster shows women and children fighting for their lives, as a strong, fearless woman with a clenched fist rises from the waters, with a golden sword. This poster's palette is brighter - a deep sun yellow, a splash of red and regal blues. It is a call to arms, and is meant to inspire men to join the Navy and fight for their country.

Vintage posters called out to passersby, whether their messages were meant to seduce, inspire, or instigate. They serve as little time capsules, as reminders of the power of suggestion, and the importance of art, passion, product. There's history embedded in each of these posters, which gave not only companies, but entire countries a voice to reach the masses, and a tool to strike emotional chords - happy or sad.


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