The First World War (WWI) marked the first large-scale use of propaganda posters by governments. Posters, with easy-to-understand slogans and compelling images, made powerful propaganda tools. The government needed to shape public opinion, recruit soldiers, raise funds, conserve resources and mobilize citizens to important home front activities…including gardening. In an era before television and widespread radio and movies, posters were a form of mass media. They appeared in windows and were posted on walls everywhere, in as many languages as were spoken in this nation of immigrants.
Nearly every nation used posters to mobilize the home front during World War I (and World War II). Posters were widely used on the American home front to recruit school, home, community and workplace gardeners and to encourage food conservation
One of my favorite images is this one – “Uncle Sam Says Garden” – produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This poster was directed to a broad audience. Produced in 1917, it shows Uncle Sam in the foreground, holding a hoe in one hand, and papers that read “City Gardens” and “Farm Gardens” in the other. These words are clearly meant to synthesize the interests of rural and urban Americans in a time when tensions ran high between them. Gardening was promoted as a unifying activity, a common call to service and a shared national goal. The striking visual imagery and rhetoric of this and other posters played into larger themes stressing the nature of American freedom, citizenship, and patriotism.
The poster depicts a man and woman working in the garden. The garden is formed in the shape of the American flag. Some of the plants in the garden appear to be stars upon the flag. The woman in the poster wears a long, red skirt and a white shirt; on her arm is something she has harvested.
A subtitle suggests that Americans might wish to garden in order to “cut food costs.” Those seeing the poster are urged to write to the USDA for a free bulletin on gardening, suggesting, “It’s food for thought.” The poster is framed by a brown band and the bottom right corner features a cluster of richly hued vegetables. Upon careful inspection, the background, featuring trees, actually bears a striking resemblance to leafy green vegetables and to broccoli stems. The use of Uncle Sam in gardening posters was not as common in this era as depictions of Columbia. In this image, Uncle Sam is dressed in clothing covered with stars and stripes and has a piercing gaze. He doesn’t bear a flag; rather, he holds a hoe.
This poster offers a message that is still food for thought, don’t you think?