Public History Now

Public History Group, Ruskin College, Oxford, 20th May, 2000

‘Nostalgia and the Visual Image: The memory of propaganda posters of the Second World War.’

ABSTRACT: This paper will explore the place that Second World War Home Front posters have in popular memory, with a particular focus upon the nostalgia industry that has grown up around them.

There are countless objects that can be purchased adorned with images and slogans from wartime posters: not only postcards and reproduction posters, but mugs, key rings, T-shirts, chocolate bars, playing cards, and many others. Money would not be spent producing such objects unless it was felt there was a market for them, and such objects have been produced by the Imperial War Museum and the Public Record Office, amongst others, for many years, in the knowledge that they will sell.

The paper will consider why such products do sell, with their appeal based not only upon their immediate visual impact, [Footnote 1] often the reason they were successful in the first place, but upon their status as social and historical documents, and as a reminder of a past, mythical or otherwise. Many people remember the posters from the war, as can be illustrated by replies received from a questionnaire distributed, in 1997-9, as part of the PhD project.

Posters often trigger memories, in particular causing people become nostalgic about, for instance, ‘the Blitz spirit’. This has largely been deemed a myth, [Footnote 2] and it will be interesting to consider how far such a ‘spirit’ was propagated through the war posters, and how far the posters have contributed to such a ‘myth’. Yet, memories of war posters are not restricted to those who can remember the war, people of all generations can list many war poster slogans, such as ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’. There are two probable factors which account for this: many slogans have become tied up with the mythology of war; and war posters are used extensively as illustration in both children’s and populist ‘coffee table’ books, where the poster is used to get across a point pictorially, as was the original purpose.

The paper will take into account the original purpose of propaganda and advertising posters, designed to be ephemeral, but also memorable. It will attempt to define what factors determine if a poster can be deemed a ‘success’, especially from a later point in time. The paper will also briefly reflect upon how changes in history have enabled the poster to be considered as a historical source.

1 Gleeson, J. Collecting Prints and Posters, 1997, p92
2 Calder, A. The Myth of the Blitz, 1991

With Gary Peatling ‘Appeasement and public history now and in the future’.

The day was interesting and well attended, with a very friendly atmosphere.

The Paper Presented

Paper Given: Public History, May 2000

A 20 minute paper was presented at Ruskin College in Oxford. More image links may be added at a later date!

, objects that remind people of memorable times, people and events [1], form a major nostalgia industry. There is a widespread nostalgia industry around posters, and following are some examples of material produced by the Imperial War Museum:

Reproduction posters/postcards, etc. [Slide]; Playing cards [Slide]; Mugs [Slide]; Keyrings [Slide] Jigsaws [Slide] Chocolate bars, etc. [Slides]

Among others places that sell reproduction poster items are the Public Record Office: Diary pages, where posters are shown alongside other items such as the Magna Carta. [Show], the Robert Opie Museum of Advertising & Packaging and the Past Times shop: T-shirts [Show].

Last year I found a leaflet aimed at pensioners who needed a ‘flu vaccination, which utilised a comical ‘Coughs and Sneezes’ poster, originally used during the war, (We’ll see an example later) and it was obviously expected that such an image would ‘ring bells’ with the ‘target market’.

The leaflet for ‘The Art of Propaganda’ study day at Duxford used a Fougasse cartoon poster from the Second World War [show] – out of all the images they could have used, this was the one that they felt would attract people to the event.

‘Popular’ books related to the war are often heavily illustrated with posters and advertisements, and front covers of books often use poster images as they are expected to attract attention in the way that they originally did. Clark used one of the most popular posters people remember from the war: ‘Women of Britain’.

Such items would not be produced unless it was felt that there was a market for them, so we need to question what it is that attracts people to such items, when posters were surely intended as fleeting, ephemeral objects. Not sure we can answer that in 20-odd minutes, but will try & raise some issues for discussion.

But first we need to define nostalgia.
Chase and Shaw defined three prerequisites for the presence of nostalgia in a society: a linear and secular view of time and history (as in Western societies); a sense that the present is deficient; and the presence of items from the past [2]. So, how do we define nostalgia? The Oxford English Dictionary Online defined nostalgia in the 18th and 19th centuries as

“A form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one’s home or country; severe home-sickness.”,

a precursor of the definition which has become more familiar since the 1920s:

“Regret or sorrowful longing for the conditions of a past age; regretful or wistful memory or recall of an earlier time.”[3] or

“A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” [4]

But whatever definition you take, the key is that time and distance safely separate us from the ‘facts’, it is the ‘ROSE TINTED’ view of the ‘GOOD OLD TIMES’. A recent newspaper article (produced online), described the recent Channel 4 programme in which a British family lived life in a Victorian style for 3 months. They aptly summed up nostalgia as “memory’s cataracts – clouding our vision and causing us to see things that were never there.”[5] They described living the real life as a ‘cure’ for the longings for the ‘good old days’.

In early 1998 I circulated a questionnaire and one gentleman claimed that wartime posters “were always in the background to one’s thinking.”[6] Wartime posters were designed to meet the need of the moment, but the slogans and images have lasted in people’s memories. The posters appear to have outlived their original purpose, and have become reminders of wartime events, in particular of the ‘Blitz spirit’, where the idea that ‘a cup of tea will solve it all’ has often become prevalent. However, when I gave a talk at the ‘1940s Society’, one lady said that she only recognised 2-3 posters out of the 60-odd images which I showed them, and my grandfather, born about 1918, and worked in the farming industry during the war said:

“My mind was on other things in those days, indeed there was little time, or inclination to take much interest in anything but survival. … Perhaps the fact of having no real memory of war time politics may even tell its own story.” [7]

So we have to question whether people are remembering the actual posters they saw during the war, or simply the ones which have been popularised since the war. As a respondent told me in early 1998 when I circulated a questionnaire:

“… it is difficult to disentangle genuine memories from those enhanced by reproduced images generating an “Oh! I remember that” reaction.” [8]

as they had had so much retrospective exposure. But this really sends us around in a circle, as we still have to question why they have been popularised since the war.

We need to think about the ORIGINAL purpose of a poster: All advertisements are designed to arouse a response in us, and posters were intended to give immediate visual impact, to be short, sharp and memorable. They are a form of propaganda, which we can define as:

“The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, especially in a tendentious (prejudiced) way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response.” [9]

People who responded to my questionnaire often seemed to have a better recollection of the slogans than the posters themselves. Slogans such as ‘Coughs
& Sneezes Spread diseases
‘ were one-liners intended to attract the attention of the public to an issue, in this case ‘careless talk’. We have to remember that individual posters were not produced in a vacuum, but were often part of a series, indeed, part of a wider campaign with newspapers, radio & film all echoing the same message. Of these, the visual images used in posters are the most easily memorised: we tend to remember more of what we see than what we hear (and even more of what we do)!

Replies in questionnaires indicated that people remembered that posters often made them aware that they were all in it together, of the need to help each other, and not waste anything. The posters are a reminder of the past, mythical or otherwise. ‘Most old folks can remember a time when beer was cheaper … and people had more respect… Most of us remember odd patches of our lives with especial affection, sometimes patches that were not in themselves particularly pleasant.’ (Michael Wood, 1974) [10] Of even more interest is why people of younger generations also know of many of the posters, or poster slogans. As an example of that, I thought about why I started this project – I was born thirty years after the war ended, but I was taken to the Imperial War Museum by my mother about ten years ago, and the most interesting and memorable exhibit for me were the colourful war posters. When the opportunity arose for an individual project at history A-level, I decided to investigate the posters: they had attracted me had they had the same effect on people at the time? When I say what my project is, the most obvious, instantaneous response is “Oh, like ‘Your Country Needs You‘”, the most famous poster from the First World War, listed amongst the book The 100 best posters of the century by Campaign, [a poster production company]. Many also remember and collect the ‘My Goodness, My Guinness’ [Show] advertisements/posters from the war, a campaign which was started as the independent brewery needed to create such a demand for their product that non-independent pubs would have to stock their product. Government wartime slogans which also surface include ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives‘, ‘Dig for Victory‘, and ‘Keep mum, she’s not so dumb‘. It has been said that nostalgia involves a personal link with the past in question, although we do not know of the events of war, we are close enough to the war, and often to the people who WERE involved to feel ‘involved’ ourselves. There is a knowledge that if events had turned out differently in the past, our present would have been affected. [11] The Second World War is often seen as a defining point in history, the present had been seen as ‘post-war’, (although it is now possibly becoming post-millennial). The war itself has is perceived as a time when people pulled together, when there was not such a frenzy for material objects, more of a shared culture than a ‘me’ culture. As an example of this I found a magazine ‘Best of British’ yesterday about a couple, in their 30s, who have a passion for the 1940s. “It was a romantic period when people had time for one another” and “People didn’t have much but made the most of what they did have.”

Posters contain many ‘unconscious messages’; when planning a poster, the poster designer assumes “that the audience will understand the ad’s message because both communicator and receiver share a common culture or common frame of reference.” [12] Certain symbols and language are assumed to be shared, which they generally are, therefore we are able to read such ‘messages’. Any objects from the war are of interest, but the posters in particular reflect an idealised view of the past, containing selective, idealised ‘reality’ defining ‘this is how things should be/will be’. The idealised poster images presented are bound up with the general idealised mythology of the war.

For instance, women are generally believed to have taken on many new roles outside the home during the war. The posters demonstrate the conflict the Government had with this, initial posters emphasised the role of women in the home, later posters had to recognise the non-domestic roles that women took on, but very few recognised that most women now had a duel role. For instance, married/older women are often depicted as housewives [example], or carers for evacuees [example], whilst it is the younger, single women who are depicted as war workers [example]. Commercial advertisers seemed to recognised this duel role earlier, [example outside office], but post-war the images of women in their domestic spheres returned ‘I’m clocking in at home’ was one slogan. [13]

As mentioned earlier, my mother took me to the Imperial War Museum, and most children will have seen a war poster by the time they finish primary school. ‘The Home Front’ is often a popular ‘topic’, posters make for colourful illustrations, and they are something that children can have a go at designing themselves. The IWM produces several sets containing reproduction documents for use in schools. [Show] Posters produced by democratic Britain were fairly innocuous, they were not particularly offensive, nothing along the xenophobic lines of the ‘beast’ [show] poster produced by the Americans in the First World War, and are therefore perceived as acceptable for children to view.

Posters have been collected for many years: at the turn of the century there was a particular enthusiasm for the poster, and there was even a journal ‘The Poster’ produced for about 3 years. Posters were originally collected for their artistic worth, as described by Miller’s Collecting Guide:

“The value of these is largely dependent on the quality of the design and commercial appeal of the image. Good design will invariably hold its value, even if the poster is by an obscure or anonymous artist. Also popular are posters showing sports, vintage cars and fashionable figures, or those that reflect the mood of their times.” [14]

A lot of the value of a poster still attaches to the importance/fame of the artist, although by the inter-war years it was possible for an artist to be more famous for poster design than for other art work. But, just think, the Imperial War Museum houses its posters in ‘The Art Department’. Posters are now collected for their importance as historical documents, and this is due largely to the widened scope of history over recent decades.

Forty or fifty years ago a subject such as ‘posters’ would not have been considered valid for historical research. The popularising of ‘history from below’ in the 1960s, and the merging of history with other subjects, in particular the social sciences and anthropology, has widened the field of historical research greatly, and has thus widened the range of sources available. Although visual sources are much more prolific than written sources, the written word has tended to have a dominance as a historical source in a culture that caused Raphael Samuel to comment:

“History, in the hands of the professional historian, is apt to present itself as an esoteric form of knowledge. It fetishizes archive-based research…” [15]

However, visual sources are more prolific now than they ever were, with the Internet, etc. Marwick, in 1989, defined 12 ‘varieties’ of primary source, of which the 6th is ‘media of communication and artefacts of popular culture.’ [16] Dependent upon the subject under investigation, every source has validity for historical study, provided that it is studied in context, and that the right questions, such as who produced it, why did they produce it, etc., are asked of it. The changing role of ephemeral objects must be taken into account, for instance, in the last decade the poster has taken on a new role as, for instance, a news opportunity for politicians, or a place to make the ‘’ name known.

Partly due to the way that posters have been collected over the years, posters have largely been used by historians, if at all, for illustrative purposes. There is a standard joke amongst my friends that I spend the day sat in Athena staring at posters, and a frequent reaction is ‘how can you write 75,000 words on PICTURE POSTERS?’ These comments at first seem amusing, but they reveal a deeper worry about the public perception of history and what it entails. The project does not study posters as ‘pretty pictures’ or graphic objects, but as historical objects. On the surface they can reveal ‘factual’ information about fashions, etc., but of far more interest is what they can reveal about, for instance, attitudes. As we saw with the earlier example about women, the Government faced conflict between its need to recruit women, and its desire for women to maintain roles in the home, and posters can reveal much about relations between the ‘advertiser’, in this case the state, and the ‘consumer’, in this case the general public. We can discover what the Government felt that the people needed to do, and if legislative measures are taken into consideration, we can determine how far the Government believed people would do what was asked, or whether they required firmer direction.

I did say in my abstract that I would deal with the issue of how we determine ‘the success of a poster’, but this is something that is actually extremely difficult. If a campaign aimed to have 50,000 people digging up their allotments by a certain stage, the poster could be deemed a success if this happened, but the poster was unlikely to have been the only factor in a campaign, so we would need to determine what else was likely to have affected the outcome. Even more difficult is that many posters seemed determined to change attitudes, something which is incredibly hard to measure. Due to the lack of market research at the time, although records collected by Mass-Observation and Home Intelligence help in some ways, such facts are even more difficult to determine sixty-odd years on.

In a western democratic culture there is a clear distinction between the past and the present, for many people the future seems uncertain, and they feel that there is a decline in participation in public life. Many people therefore feel isolated, and thinking of a time when people ‘drew together’ is bound to inspire nostalgia. Poster collections exist which serve as reminders of wartime experiences, and therefore Chase & Shaw’s three prerequisites have been met and help to explain the popularity of poster images in this day and age, but for the historian it is extremely important to bear in mind that we need to look beyond the surface images for what they can tell us about attitudes then and now.

[1] OED Online ‘Memorabilia’ Accessed 11/04/00

[2] Shaw, M. & Chase, M., The Imagined Past, History and Nostalgia, 1989, p3

[3] OED Online: ‘Nostalgia’, http://dic…/00159815?case_id=ooLh-4S2LPB-589&p=1&d=1&sp=0&qt=1&ct=1&ad=1- Accessed 11/04/00

[4] ‘’ Accessed 11/04/00

[5] Detroit Free Press ‘Mort Crim: Look back can be eye-opening’ 3/04/00. Accessed 11/04/00 (they claimed it was BBC)

[6] Weeder, H., Reply to questionnaire, April, 1998

[7] Letter from R.G. Cross (my grandfather), 21/4/98.

[8] Metcalfe, C., Response to questionnaire, April 1998

[9] Oxford University Dictionary, unknown date.

[10] Lowenthal, D., ‘Nostalgia tells it like it wasn’t’ in Shaw, M. & Chase, M. The Imagined Past, History and Nostalgia 1989, p 19

[11] Shaw, M. & Chase, M., The Imagined Past, History and Nostalgia 1989, p 2

[12] Dyer, G., Advertising as Communication 1982, p13

[13] Dyer, G., Advertising as Communication, 1982, p52

[14] Gleeson, J., Collecting Prints & Posters, 1997, p93

[15] Samuel, R., Theatres of Memory 1994, p3

[16] Marwick, A., Nature of History, p209. 3rd Ed.

After a paper by Gary Peatling, we then had a discussion about some of the questions raised about public history.