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"Design of War" Showcases WWI and WWII Flags and Posters at the PMA

Pensacola Museum of Art

The ‘Design of War’ exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of Art showcases posters, flags and other items produced during World War I and II. Several of the flags on display were produced during the first and second World Wars at Mare Island, a Navy base in California that was closed in the 1990s.  Dr. Patrick Rowe is a professor of art history at Pensacola State College and curator of the show.

“The flags were used for communication during the war. It was dangerous to send information out over the radio because the enemy could hear the messages. So oftentimes messages were sent by hoisting certain flags,” Rowe said.

All of the items are originals that Rowe acquired over the past two years. Many of the posters promote the four liberty bond drives held during World War I. The French, British, American and German governments all held bond drives during the war. They tried to raise money to help pay for equipment that was needed.

“Posters like this one were intended to pull on the heart-strings of the American citizens,” Rowe said. “Here, there’s a depiction of a young girl. The idea is boy, if you support the war effort, if you buy war bonds, our children are going to be safe in the future.”

Flags were awarded to towns if enough people purchased war bonds. Purchasing war stamps was also advertised as an inexpensive way to support the war effort.

“So it was a way that children could contribute to the war effort, or people who were not making a lot of money and could not buy war bonds outright, they could buy the stamps and over a long period of time, they would get enough stamps that they would get a war bond,” Rowe said.

Most of the posters from World War I were lithographs. The prints were stamped with several slabs of stone, each containing a different of color to create the final image. By World War II, photography replaced lithography for most poster designs. A poster with the caption “The Victory Loan Flyers—watch for the airplane special” refers to the pilots who were brought back from the war and flew to towns throughout the country.

“If you bought a war bond, they would give you a ride in one of the planes. You could fly around. The whole thing is just—raise money for the war effort. And they’d move all across the country, from one town to another. During World War I, how many people have even seen an airplane before, let alone get a ride in an airplane. So this would be a really exciting thing for that time,” Rowe said.

Many of the posters during World War I were created in an expressionist style, which featured intense colors and images that evoked an emotional response. Several depict stylized German soldiers that symbolized the violence of the enemy.

“We’ve got a bloody arm rising out of the ocean holding a bloody dagger,” Rowe described. “In the background is an American ship. The indicator is, Buy liberty bonds, because we need to fight the menace in the sea, the submarines that the Germans are putting out there to sink American cargo ships and troop ships.”

In the World War II room, a dress is displayed in front of hanging parachute. Rowe said that many American soldiers were engaged and wanted to get married after the war ended.

“Because of the war, there was a shortage of nice cloth at the time,” Rowe explained. “So what a lot of the soldiers in the Army and the Air Force did, was they saved their parachutes. They brought them home and they would give them to their moms. And then the mom would make a wedding dress from the cloth with the parachute. So my dad brought his parachute home.”

Rowe’s grandfather bought a wedding dress for his daughter, so the parachute was used to make a night gown. Cases near the parachute display letters written by soldiers and sailors to their mothers and fiancées. A poster nearby encouraged people to save their cooking grease during World War II.

“They would keep the grease into a container. Once the container was filled, they would take the grease to a butcher or a grocery store, where there would be a big container. They were poured all in that. Then eventually, all that grease would be given over to the government. And in the grease, there was glycerin, which was used during the war to make explosives,” Rowe said.

The “Design of War” exhibit will be on display at the Pensacola Museum of Art through January 3. More information is available at http://www.pensacolamuseum.org/exhibitions/.