The Battle Of The Fences

August 2017

War appeals to something deep within the human soul, some philosophers say; otherwise we should not have so many of them. Whether or not this theory is valid, it is certainly true that, like dishwashers and detergents, wars must be advertised and sold. During World War I, before the spread of powerful mass media like the movies and radio, the poster on wall or fence was the most effective technique for mustering the people to total mobilization. Long before the United States entered the war, war posters had begun to appear in this country, as the democracies tried to enlist U.S. support and the imperial Central Powers tried to encourage our neutrality. Even the more specific posters, like Lloyd Myer’s recruiting effort below, aimed at Lnglishmen abroad, carried what we now call subliminal appeal for the backing of America itself. And when we joined the Allies, the nation’s artists rushed to their studios. The posters they produced, which we sample here, epitomize the needs and attitudes of a nation at war. They have echoes we can hear today. Co-ordinating the vast artistic effort of 1917 and 1918 was Charles Dana Gibson’s Division of Pictorial Publicity, which valiantly waged the “Battle of the Fences” at weekly meetings in Keen’s Chop House and later, as membership swelled, in the Salmagundi Club, both in New York City. There was a rebel, of course, and he was James Montgomery Flagg, who complained that Gibson “called meetings every time a cabin boy off a British ship appeared in our city. I soon became horribly bored with rising toasts.” Flagg’s authority for such disloyalty was, of course, his famous all-purpose poster above. Originally painted as a cover for Leslie’s Illustrated (he posed for it himself), this poster saw action in both World Wars in more than four million copies. Gibson’s group in nineteen months turned out 1,484 designs for posters, window cards, cartoons, seals, buttons, and banners—dramatic evidence, they insisted, that artists were not just long-haired Bohemians. Their victory dinner, held on February 14, 1919, at the Hotel Commodore, began, appropriately, with a Gibson cocktail.