I’ve written about what a World War I poster can teach us about food waste. I’ve also shared with you how I think a program called the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) might offer – at least in part – one model for a national curriculum focusing on food systems education. (Opinion: “No child left behind” should also apply to education about the nation’s food system).

This post has three images that were used to promote a gardening program for youth (the USSGA) during World War I. They are visually striking. They contain messages that were important to the nation in that era…and which could also be interesting for us to consider today.

History of poster art

World War I 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 American government needed to shape public opinion, recruit soldiers, raise funds, conserve resources and mobilize citizens to important home front activities…including gardening, food conservation and food preservation. In an era before television and widespread radio and movies, posters were a form of mass media. And they appeared in windows and were posted on walls everywhere, in as many languages as were spoken in this nation of immigrants.

Many of the wartime posters were created by prominent artists whose work appeared in popular magazines, either as cover art or in advertising.

USSGA posters

The United States School Garden Army – sponsored by the Bureau of Education and funded by the War Department – mobilized mostly urban and suburban youth to school, home and community gardening during World War I.

Maginel Wright Barney.
Maginel Wright Barney (1877-1966). USSGA poster, 1919.

Noted children’s artist Maginel Wright Barney created a series of wartime posters that recruited youth to the USSGA. Three are included in this post. All of these images are available for download free of charge, from the Library of Congress. These particular posters are also held in the collection of the Museum of Ventura County, which has generously allowed them to be photographed. All photographs are courtesy of Aysen Tan.

In one of the most famous USSGA posters, Follow the Pied Piper, Uncle Sam, in striped pants, perhaps playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his fife, leads young children across an American landscape. The boys carry tools. A young girl, holding a military knapsack with the USSGA logo, sows seeds on newly plowed furrows. In the distance we see a prosperous village or town. The landscape in the background – which is already under cultivation – appears as an American flag. There is sense of movement in the poster…perhaps a storm is coming?

Maginel Wright Barney.

This poster’s headline, War Gardens Over the Top, tackles the topic of trench warfare, one of the most horrifying and iconic features of World War I. The young boy depicted in the poster is holding an American flag. He scales a garden “trench”, a hoe in his grasp. The boy is accompanied by a troop of vegetables, some with mouths opened in a silent scream as they face the horrors of modern warfare…perhaps mustard gas? The tagline of this vivid poster – The Seeds of Victory Insure the Fruits of Peace – directly ties gardening to world peace and national security. It also delivers the message that peace requires strength.

Maginel Wright Barney.
Maginel Wright Barney.

After the Armistice was signed, Barney produced an additional poster for the USSGA series. It shows the same boy, perhaps a bit older now, “uniformed” in a blue shirt and overalls. He is proudly leading a regiment of smiling vegetables – potatoes, carrots, turnips and pumpkins. A small American flag is tucked into the band on his straw hat; the vegetable brigade carries a full-sized American flag. They are returning in safety to begin a new effort that emphasizes the power of gardens in the secured peace.