In the fifty-two years since the end of the Second World War, modes of historical study have changed greatly. Emphases of study have changed from the study of great men to the study of the ordinary people, and the issues that concerned them. The posters produced during the Second World War are a part of this history.
Visually, they cannot be regarded as great works of art; neither were they intended as such by the artists concerned…. But besides their message they tell us something of the prevailing manners and customs. They also mirror the changing fortunes of the war.[Footnote 1]
We are surrounded by images from the past. Artefacts from the past have attracted varying responses, ranging from awe to greed, from nostalgia to simple curiosity – or indifference. And sometimes the historian has turned to them when seeking to verify or challenge some legend or fable or well-attested narrative handed down from the past by word of mouth or in written texts. [Footnote 2]
The use of art for historical purposes is important when we consider what it is hoped to gain from the study of posters of the Second World War. In early history artefacts were used as important evidence, yet by the fifteenth century, due to the recovery of much ancient literature, the written word dominated historical sources. Humanist historians were concerned not with evoking the past, but with drawing moral and intellectual lessons from it, and art was left to antiquarians. [Footnote 3]
However, since the last century, the importance of the pictorial sources has increased. It is now accepted that artefacts can be used to broaden the area of study, but in order to make the fullest use of an artefact as a source, it is important for the historian to establish what it is that is being looked at, its authenticity, when and for what purpose it was made, and how it was received. Historians also need to be aware of any circumstances, conventions or constraints that govern representations in art, and the “technical means available for expressing this vision”.[Footnote 4] In wartime, for instance, there was little paper available.
During the last couple of decades the propaganda poster as a souvenir item has become popular, with visitors to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) able to buy reproductions of posters in poster and postcard form, with the range expanding in more recent years. Visitors can now buy reproductions of posters on such items as key-rings, mugs, playing cards and chocolate bars, to name but a few, although in a fairly limited range of designs. It can therefore be seen that there is still a lot of interest in these posters now, and it is suggested that there is something in the images contained in the posters that still has appeal for the British public now, although it is a possible that this will diminish now that the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war is over.
We must not forget “how erratic and potentially misleading a process has been the survival of most visual evidence”. [Footnote 5] Due to the efforts of the IWM and the Public Record Office (PRO) it appears that many examples of Home Front posters have survived. However, there is still an element of selection in those posters that remain on view; the IWM has many more posters in storage than it is possible to display. It was considered important to look at originals of posters, as the effect is very different from that produced by looking solely at postcards. The historian can then gain some idea of how posters looked to contemporaries, although obviously we do not get to see them in their full context, nor the magnificent hoarding size posters.
Posters were centrally produced and distributed and therefore are more reliable as an indicator of government mentality than, for instance, speeches to workers at lunch-times, although believing that the public distrusted ‘official information’ the Ministry of Information (MoI) sought to remain anonymous as far as possible. As a result, most wartime posters remain undated and unsourced, making it almost impossible to follow the development of MoI campaigns through the war, although poster content and newspaper reports give us some clues as to the date of poster campaigns.
The main source for governmental papers is the PRO at Kew. These are important as they give us an understanding of the planning stages, although we must remember that the papers that are stored at the PRO account for only “one per cent of the paperwork created by the state each year”. [Footnote 6] Mass-Observation (M-O) contains a unique collection of qualitative data, providing us with a view of “private opinions which people might be reluctant to express to a pollster”. [Footnote 7] Although its panel of volunteer observers was heavily skewed towards those in the middle classes, and the south-east of England, this is not felt to discredit its findings. [Footnote 8]
For many, the wartime slogans, such as ‘Dig for Victory’, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ and ‘Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases’ blaring at them from every side, from the radio, the big screen, newspapers and hoardings, have never been forgotten, and such slogans have been passed on as a part of our common heritage. Yet, the poster appears to be the most enduring memory that is held, and one would question why. Research into the images contained in Second World War Home Front posters, the decisions that went into the use of these images, and the reception of these images by the British public are important, particularly in relation to the way that the government tried to collect responses and whether they changed their campaigns accordingly.
Posters that were not published or were withdrawn also make for interesting study, particularly for reasons as to why they were rejected, such as whether there were certain images that made such posters offensive. However, there do not seem to be many examples of these, although whether this is because records of unsuccessful designs were not kept or because there were not many anyway, was not established.
There “must be a reasonably fertile field to nourish the propagandist’s seed before it can be expected to ripen into attitudes and opinions”, [Footnote 9] and therefore it is important to understand how the war affected civilians, but many studies have already been done in this area, [Footnote 10] and it is not wished to repeat such information here. We can then understand the meanings behind some of the images used in posters, and understand how, for instance, during particularly bleak periods there was seen to be a need for morale-boosting propaganda. We will look at whether the government felt that propaganda constituted the ‘fourth armament’, and may then be able to understand the way in which the government balanced the use of persuasion and legislation in its campaigns so necessary for the survival of Britain.
In chapter one we will establish a brief, general history of the poster, including advances in graphic techniques and its use in the past. We can then look at how it was actually used in the war, but with particular emphasis upon the extent to which the poster was used in the propaganda ‘battle’ on the ‘Home Front’, both terms which are used today without a thought for how such terms were popularised through wartime propaganda. To avoid anachronisms, we also need to understand that the poster may serve an entirely different purpose now as to that of wartime Britain. Although little reference is made in this study to other propaganda methods, such as newspapers, the cinema, [Footnote 11] and radio, [Footnote 12] posters “generally form part of a larger scheme, and their functions cannot be judged without knowledge of the underlying policy and the plans for the campaign as a whole”. [Footnote 13]
In chapter two we will look briefly at the development and organisation of the MoI, and see to what extent First World War experiences affected both the way that the poster was used in the Second World War, and the use of particular images within posters. We will also see what steps the government took to ensure that its propaganda was appropriate, including the use of sources such as M-O and the Home Intelligence Division.
In chapter three we will see if the government learnt any lessons from the commercial world, and look at the first posters that they produced, generally perceived to be failures, although this is possibly as every historian is reliant upon M-O as the main critical source. [Footnote 14] We will then look at subsequent posters to see if the government appeared to learn any lessons from the criticisms of the first posters.
In Second World War posters there is a conspicuous absence of ‘hate xenophobia’ which was a staple ingredient of First World War posters. In chapter four we see some of the effects of relations between the British government and foreign powers, in particular their attempts to distinguish between ruling ideologies and the general populace. We will look particularly at the impact of Soviet propaganda on British posters.
The best remembered poster from the First World War is the pointing finger of Kitchener (Figure 1); in chapter five, we will see how some posters used this method. We will then look at other techniques by which the direct consequences of their actions were put across to the British public.
Through chapter six we will see the way that women were portrayed, and appealed to, in posters. We will gain an idea of the roles that women were expected to fulfil, in the home and in the services. We will look particularly at the use of glamour in posters, which was used both to appeal to new recruits, and to indicate the dangers of careless talk and the ‘easy woman’. We will also look at two posters that were rejected, and try to understand the reasons for this.
Although several popular relevant histories have been published, [Footnote 15] which are useful to see how various myths about the war are perpetuated, we must be aware of the dangers of using such over-simplified histories. In both popular and academic studies the poster tends to be seen as ancillary to other issues of war, or used simply as an illustration, rather than studied in its own right. Even though there are several books which have been published on the subject of wartime posters, [Footnote 16] it is not one that has been fully explored, and more often posters are studied within a more general book on government propaganda. [Footnote 17] British posters in particular, have been neglected in favour of Nazi propaganda, with no study especially focusing upon what the government believed the people needed to hear, but rather approaching posters as evidence of what the people felt, a gap which this study, concentrating upon British government Home Front posters, will attempt to fill.
- Cantwell, J.D. Images of War: British Posters 1939-45 1989 p4
- Haskell, F. History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past 1993, p1
- Ibid., p2
- Ibid., p3
- Fowler, S. ‘The Nation’s Memory’ in Martin, A.M. (ed) Despatches: the Magazine of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum, April 1997, p5
- Bell, P.M.H. John Bull and the Bear: British Public Opinion, Foreign Politics and the Soviet Union, 1941-1945, 1990, p10
- Calder, A. and Sheridan, D. Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-49, 1984, p74
- American Historical Association ‘What is Propaganda?’ (1944) in Boehm, E. Behind Enemy Lines: WWII Allied/Axis Propaganda 1989 p24
- Suggested studies include Calder, A .The People’s War 1939-1945, 1969 and Longmate, N. How We Lived Then, 1977
- For further information on this topic, see Richards, J. and Sheridan, D. (eds) Mass-Observation at the Movies, 1987
- For further information on this topic, see Briggs, A. The War of Words: A History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Vol. 3, 1970
- Advertiser’s Weekly, 8/10/42, p44, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the Imperial War Museum
- MO-A: FR 2, ‘Government Posters in Wartime’, October 1939
- Including Begley, G. Keep Mum: Advertising Goes to War, 1975; Briggs, S. Keep Smiling Through, 1975; Costello, J. Love, Sex and War 1939-1945, 1985; Davies, J. The Wartime Kitchen and Garden: The Home Front 1939-45, 1993; Freeman, R.A. Britain at War, 1990; H.M.S.O. Persuading the People, 1995; INDEX The Spirit of Wartime, 1995 and Marshall Cavendish Collection, ‘Selling the War’ in Images of War No.64, 1996.
- Including Cantwell, J.D. Images of War: British Posters 1939-45, 1989 and Darracott, J. and Loftus, B. (Imperial War Museum) Second World War Posters, 1972
- Including H.M.S.O. Persuading the People, 1995 and Balfour, M. Propaganda in the War 1939-45, Organisations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany, 1979
If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:
Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 1: Introduction, Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War'<URL>, written April 1997, accessed Enter Date Here
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Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.