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The Poster War: Allied Propaganda Art of the First World War

Maurice F.V. Doll

Copyright © 1993 Alberta Community Development, Cultural Facilities and Historical Resources Division
By Maurice F.V. Doll
89 pages, out of print, ISBN 0-7732-1222-1.


The following is taken from Chapter Five in The Poster War: Allied Propaganda of the First World War by Maurice F.V. Doll.

"The Poster in History"

The poster has been defined as a written or illustrated publicly displayed announcement that calls attention to goods or services currently available. It varies from text with little or no visual embellishment to an image with little or no text. Posters present a sales message with the intent to stimulate the viewer, logically or emotionally, to act on their suggestions. They are generally hung in public places to exhort passers¨by to act.

The poster originated in 1450, with the invention of movable type by Gutenberg. The invention of two other processes, wood engraving for block prints and copper plate engraving, allowed for the production of an image as well as text. However, there were few illustrated posters because of the size limitation of the wood planks and the expense of copper plate engraving. Both processes were highly specialized and required copious amounts of labour.

It was the invention of lithography in 1796 by Aloys Senefelder that allowed for the creation of the modern poster. Although a rather limited and crude product was issued at first, experimentation led to the invention of chromolithography, which used many stones to produce a multicoloured image, The size of the poster was restricted only by the size of the stone used.

After the French Revolution in 1789 and the sup¨pression of the monarchy, a new social order containing a middle class was created for which obtaining wealth became the prime objective. The poster, used as a propaganda instrument by the revolutionaries, shifted in its use to a commercial and economic function. By the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithographs or coloured posters, accompanied the rapid advance of the industrial revolution, capitalism and democracy. Industry produced ever increasing amounts of consumer goods and posters promoted their sale.

Poster art during the mid-nineteenth century remained anonymous and was generally ignored in artistic circles. The poster's sole function was to sell something, and if it did not, it was quickly discarded regardless of artistic merit. Although it has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, without text, the image could often give the wrong impression. It was therefore necessary to strike a balance between image and text. This became a time for invention and development of symbols which conveyed a universally understood message.

Poster art departed radically from its antecedents during the Art Nouveau period (1895-1915). In France, the poster promoted itself rather than a product. Instead of remaining anonymous, poster artists signed their work conspicuously and made their posters artificially rare by printing them in strictly limited quantities, Posters soon became collectable and passed from the ephemeral to the realm of fine art. Posters were exhibited in galleries and were collected by museums for their artistic merit rather than as artifacts documenting social history.

The period of the First World War, 1914-1918, was seen by many as a time when the poster was revitalized. In the new forms that developed, the poster regained its traditional function of selling a product. In so doing, it fulfilled a useful function for society at large. As pan of this revitalization, the poster took on the selling of ideology, the selling of war.

The First World War was a new type of war that was a product of rapid economic expansion and industrialization. This war deployed several mil¨lion men on the battlefield, who were from all levels of society and from all over the world. It was a war in which new technologies, such as the machine gun and poison gas, caused casualties beyond the comprehension of military strategists still steeped in nineteenth-century traditions. Manpower therefore was needed to swell the ranks of the armies. Before universal conscription, appeals to pride and sense of duty served to persuade men to join up. Vast amounts of materiel were being consumed on the battlefield, so the home front required millions more to replace that which was consumed. Consequently, this marked the first time governments became directly involved in overseeing the use of propaganda in the form of the poster.

The homefront battle became one for people's blood and money as well as for their minds. Allied governments' use of posters to fight this battle was timely. The poster was accepted and understood. It enjoyed a certain amount of respectability as a popular collectable art form. As a commercial vehicle, it was tried and tested. Above all, as a cheap product of lithography, it was affordable.

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