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From Litho Stone to Pentium Chip: Interpreting Gender in U.S. World War I Posters


Untitled (Can food), ca. 1918
offset lithograph mounted on board
32 3/4 x  21 7/8 in. (sheet); 33 5/8 x 22 1/2 in. (board)

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Can the Kaiser by Andrew DeCicco '00
This World War I poster, created in 1918 by J. Paul Verrees, addresses many issues of gender, as well as race, ethnicity, and class.  During World War I, posters served as propaganda tools to rally efforts in both Allied and Axis countries, as well as here in the United States.  They became one of the most powerful tools of communication with the growing population in this country, as the radio and the television were still yet to be invented. (1)  The main themes in a typical poster consisted of several different topics, each attempting to target a specific group of citizens.  Another common theme of these war posters was a request to the viewers to reduce and otherwise conserve their food consumption. 

In this poster, the theme of food consumption reduction is obviously the focus.  However, there is a strong "rallying-of-patriotism" effect caused by the physical depiction of the Kaiser.  This is a case of propaganda, meaning bias to persuade the viewer to agree with the opinion of the artist or creator.  The German Kaiser is shown in a common can of food to degrade him and make him appear weak.  His face is drawn with exaggerated roughness and an appearance that hints at an animal-like persona.  The symbols chosen in this poster, such as the Kaiser's face as the enemy and his helmet to imply the brutish force of the German army, encourage the viewer to defeat the enemy.  "Many posters of this era depicted the common enemy as grotesque, [with] animal-like features and hulking frames.  These distorted caricatures attempted to vilify and degrade the enemy." (2) 

With the constant need to reduce and efficiently consume food during World War I, this poster may have caught the attention of concerned consumers.  The audience this poster was intended for was most likely women, since they were largely responsible for the shopping and food preparation. 

1. Shawn Auditz and Gail Stern, "Americans All!  Images in World War I Posters," from Prologues Portfolio (1987), 41. 
2.  Ibid., 42. 

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Do Your Part to Can the Kaiser by Lee J. Scott '98
This particular poster represents many facets of American society during the early 20th century.  The main themes of the poster are obviously targeted to those on the United States home front during World War I.  In linking aid to soldiers abroad with canned food products, the U.S. government was asking women and those unable to fight at home to get involved.  The depiction of a dejected and defeated Kaiser bottled among the tomatoes and peas is meant to portray the power of American society, even for those not directly involved in the fighting.  The slogan, "What are YOU doing?" focuses on the attempt to spur women at home into action, creating a comparison between individuals and the public as a whole.  As women generally did most of the food shopping during this period, the poster is directed at them.  In addition, canned foods and other such products are a symbol of the domestic circle, a social entity that was comprised almost completely of women. 

The portrait of the Kaiser portrayed in this poster is also extremely interesting.  I would argue that it is no mistake that the Kaiser, who represents the evil of Germany, is contained quite easily in a canned food jar, which symbolizes various feminine attributes.  This representation is meant to state that even the "weakest" parts of American society, its women, are strong enough to overcome the Kaiser, and that "even the women in America" could win this war.  The effect of this particular poster would be not only to raise canned food supplies for those fighting overseas, but also to raise the spirits of those at home.  After all (according to the poster), if the American women could defeat the Kaiser, the boys should be home in no time. 

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