Treasure of World War II posters comes to light at Grove City College
No one had opened the locked library drawer since 1954.
“I asked what was in it. Nobody knew. I then tried one key after another until the drawer opened,” said Hilary Walczak, a public historian and archivist at Grove City College.
When she opened the drawer last year, she was stunned by the 175 vintage World War II propaganda posters in near-perfect condition inside.
The posters were unused and untouched since the school’s Henry Buhl Library opened 60 years ago. No one knows how they got into the drawer or why they were never displayed.
“Someone back then must have thought they had historical value and interest,” Walczak said.
Worth about $40,000 collectively, and several hundred to several thousand dollars individually, the posters aren’t quite in the league of a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. Still, they are a great find with broad appeal, said Nicholas Lowry, president and principal auctioneer of Swann Auction Galleries in New York and a poster appraiser on the PBS television show, “Antiques Roadshow.”
“I can’t buy a Van Gogh, and neither can most people. Most people can buy a $500 poster, though. One hundred and seventy five of anything is a great find,” Lowry said.
From 1941 to 1945, government agencies, businesses, and private organizations issued an array of poster images linking the military front with the homefront. Most were from the U.S. Office of War Information.
Poster artists ranged from the popular Norman Rockwell to French abstract artist Jean Carluto and many commercial artists from the advertising world.
Wartime patriotism on display in the Grove City collection spans the sentimental, such as Norman Rockwell’s famous Four Freedoms poster, to the sinister — young children standing in the shadow of a swastika in a war bonds poster that reads “Don’t Let That Shadow Touch Them.”
Posters tell men to enlist and urge women to work in factories or as nurses. They ask factory workers to boost production.
Everyone is asked to save, recycle and start victory gardens. The posters advise everyone to buy war bonds.
The posters tell people to stay at home for vacation (gasoline was strictly rationed), to limit the coffee they drink (soldiers need coffee, too) and to hold off buying car tires until victory (rubber was a vital war commodity).
Some posters now would be considered racist because of crude depictions of Japanese and Germans.
The popularity of war posters has never faded, said William L. Bird, curator of the Division of Political history at the Smithsonian Institution and co-author of “Design for Victory: World War II Poster on the American Home Front.”
“The Office of War Information wanted to get complete control of every public space available to display posters. Factories would switch posters every week,” he said.
The imagery of some posters is so strong that they are widely recognized today, Bird said.
“They will never come and go. These posters are just as popular now as during the Greatest Generation,” he said.
The government mailed posters to anyone who asked, Lowry said.
“They were the only means the government had to mass contact people. They were a mirror of everything that was going on. People still love them. They are patriotic and exceptionally strong,” Lowry said.
Use of mass-produced posters dates to about 1870, when color lithography became widespread and cheap. Posters were used during World War I — Uncle Sam Wants You for the U.S. Army — to a much lesser extent.
The United States was not the only Allied country to communicate with posters.
British posters urged young men to enlist, told the population not to waste food and told women to make nursing their war job and get their children out of London. Posters were even more important in the Soviet Union, where artists and writers produced about 1,400 designs in Moscow’s TASS studios, part of the telegraph and news agency.
“More of the Soviet population was illiterate, so posters were even more important in their war effort,” Lowry said.
The Nazis themselves made prolific use of posters to promote everything from wartime solidarity and recruitment of Hitler Youth to demonization of Jews.
Accidental poster findings such as those at Grove City are not unheard of.
In the 1990s, the Smithsonian found war posters stashed in its Maryland warehouse. In 2011, the Art Institute of Chicago staged an exhibit of Soviet wartime posters discovered during a museum renovation.
Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].