|By Elizabeth Johnson
Ironically, the last article put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History before the recent government shutdown was a plea for money.
One day before the nation’s federally funded museums locked their doors, a World War II billboard asking Americans to “Buy U.S. Defense Bonds & Stamps Now” was installed.
Created by commercial artist Carl Paulson and debuting in 1941, the design prominently depicts an American flag, along with an exhortation by President Franklin Roosevelt: “We can… We will… We must!”
Only the second time the billboard has been on display – the museum last exhibited the iconic work in 1995 and 1996 – the colors are still as fresh and vibrant as the day it was produced.
The fact the billboard was even preserved is due to the foresight of one man, Ruel P. Tolman, who served in various positions at the Smithsonian Institution from 1912 to 1948. At the beginning of World War II, he began contacting companies and organizations, requesting examples of their war-related posters. The U.S Department of the Treasury, which partnered with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America for assistance in tackling the issue of paying for the war, contributed the 12 sheets that constitute the billboard currently on display.
Part of a campaign to generate support for the war effort, the eye-catching billboard appealed to citizens’ sense of patriotism, service and sacrifice by encouraging them to buy government bonds. Referred to as defense bonds prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. involvement in the war, and dubbed victory bonds or war bonds thereafter, the financial notes were sold to fund military operations.
Later versions of the poster upon which the Smithsonian billboard was based were modified to reflect this change in terminology, encouraging civilians to “Buy U.S. War Savings Bonds.” Regardless of the text employed, Paulson’s design was the most popular American poster of World War II, appearing in more than 30,000 locations in more than 18,000 towns and cities in the spring of 1942.
Reaffirming the value of posters as powerful instruments of communication, the Treasury revived the campaign in July 1942 and 1943, and the Government Printing Office produced 4 million smaller, color reproductions to satisfy public demand for copies.
According to the Poster Handbook distributed by the U.S. Office of War Information, volunteers who helped distribute and display this type of wartime artwork pledged to treat posters as “real war ammunition” and “never let a poster lie idle.”
Paulson was one of a legion of prominent artists and illustrators involved in the poster campaign to generate public support for the war effort. To tap the creative energies of American artists, the Museum of Modern Art even organized a National Defense Poster Competition. According to Posters for Defense, the museum’s September 1941 bulletin, the contest was designed to “make available to the Government modern posters by the best contemporary designers in the United States.”
Two of the government’s largest users of posters, the Army Air Corps and the Department of the Treasury, helped sponsor the competition. Paulson earned an honorable mention, and his design was among a group of 30 for which the reproduction rights were purchased for later use.
A second design by Paulson, proclaiming “Congratulations on Your Pledge of 10 percent for War Bonds,” was also used in the war effort. The majority of the artist’s body of work, however, was commercial in nature, mostly comprised of print campaigns for various beers, including Arrow, Ballantine, Hamm’s and Narragansett.
The National Museum of American History is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Admission is free, and the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25.
For more information, call (202) 633-1000 or visit http://americanhistory.si.edu.