‘Over the Top’ shows wartime persuasion

Posters, printed materials from century ago illustrate how world has changed


Given today’s lightning-fast responses to national and international events and government actions, we may have forgotten the earlier days when public persuasion involved posters and printed materials posted prominently in public spaces. In the World War I period, 1914-18, especially after 1917 when the U.S. Congress declared war, United States residents were deluged with visual reminders to join and support the troops, support government expenses via purchase of Liberty Bonds — and hate those evil Huns …

That war began in Europe in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and cast the Central Powers — Germany and Austria-Hungary — against the Allies — France, Great Britain, the Russian Empire. Belgium was soon devastated by German invasion and conflict as France contested.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and many citizens opposed U.S. involvement at first, but by 1917, German submarines were sinking U.S. and British merchant vessels and word came of the Zimmerman Telegram from Germany to Mexico, urging the latter to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers … Wilson asked Congress to declare war and propaganda posters and materials began to appear in earnest.

The Littleton Museum has opened a new exhibit, “Over the Top,” based on that propaganda. An introductory statement contrasts propaganda to advertising.

Propaganda, it advises, “presents what is desirable … Influences thinking … Is mainly used in politics to sell ideas,” while advertising “Influences consumption of products and services, directs purchases and is mainly seen in business and to sell products …” Estimates show the U.S. population was about 30 percent immigrants at that time, and material was slanted towards existing biases and suspicions. The source for much material was a powerful Committee on Public Information.

An interesting local-angle sideline is a photo and feature on one George Creel, a former Denver Post reporter, Wilson supporter and crusader who suggested formation of the aforementioned committee/agency, which grew large. It coaxed support of fighting the German submarines and land combat as well. Graphics on many posters are well-designed and very colorful and eye-catching, A gallery visitor might try to place themselves in an ancestor’s shoes as they absorb the pitch for loyalty. Where did they live? Who might have been their neighbors? How might they get their news and from what sources?

Additional funding was needed to fight this war and the campaign to buy Liberty Bonds was intense, implying that it was the duty of everyone to support the war effort financially. People were urged to prove loyalty by enlisting in the military services, giving their government financial support via the purchase of Liberty Bonds — and of course, work up serious hatred for and paranoia over those Huns, who are depicted in “pickelhaube” helmets, rounded metal, topped with a little spearpoint. Four Liberty Bond drives raised over $17 billion.

Posters encouraged an emotional response, with caricatures of the foe. Photography was effective as propaganda. A cluster of pictures with text suggests how people at home might help the effort: Fort Logan soldiers hold loaves of bread; women worked on ordinance production lines; a Women’s Liberty Loan Committee met; Mina Van Winkle, head of the U.S. Food Administration’s Lecture Bureau, traveled promoting Victory Gardens.

An interactive spot on the back wall offers questions and factoid answers found by lifting a little door.

To the left of the gallery entrance is a bleak photo of a snow-covered field filled with trenches and barbed wire — with equally bleak information bits: 1,666,289 estimated casualties; 25,000 miles of trenches in France, Germany, Belgium; Dinant, a small Belgian town, lost 874 men, women and children during the devastating German invasion May 23, 1914. A Big Bertha cannon had an eight-mile range; 59 air raids over England in 1915-16 (London bombed eight times); 171 tons of chlorine gas used …

Another feature of the era’s colorful graphics was on the covers of sheet music, for songs still familiar: “Over There,” “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” “Johnny, Get Your Gun.”

Plan a visit with a bit of time to read the well-presented text to appreciate the interconnections and impact of this propaganda material. It might have appeared in Littleton at post offices, public buildings, the train station, on walls everywhere, here and across the nation. Omnipresent messages geared to affecting one’s actions seem a century away — and somehow familiar …


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