On this centennial of Armistice Day, many Europeans who benefited from Allied support during World War I got the opportunity to better understand American contributions on the home front, including San Antonio’s critical role in victory.
Winds and Words of War, an exhibit of 40 original World War I propaganda prints and lithographs from the San Antonio Public Library’s Texana Collection, is on the final leg of a 21-month tour to Germany, France, and England, where prominent battles were fought and troops staged after the United States joined the Allied Forces in 1917.
“These posters were the social media of their day,” said Allison Hays Lane, who curated and facilitated the traveling exhibit through her art consulting business, the Olana Group. Their messages instructed and motivated Americans to help ensure victory by joining the military or buying war bonds.
Beginning in February 2017, the exhibit traveled to Berlin (Museum The Kennedys); Darmstadt, Germany (Justus-Liebig-Haus); Devizes, England (Wiltshire Museum); Château de Blérancourt, France (The Franco-American Museum); Meaux, France (Musée de la Grande Guerre); and Reims, France (Médiathèque Jean Falala).
Upon their return, the posters will be displayed in an exhibit in the Texana Collection. Bequeathed to the library by lawyer and state senator Harry Hertzberg, the posters were part of Hertzberg’s collection of circus artifacts and memorabilia at the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum. Plans for the posters’ future exhibition are under discussion.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court sponsored the exhibition and tour and reissued a book of the entire collection as a way of honoring “our community’s legacy and tradition of service,” County Judge Nelson Wolff wrote in the book. The exhibition has been certified by the national and state World War I centennial commissions and the commissions of Great Britain and France. County Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) steered the allocation of $225,000 to the project over three years to make the tour possible.
Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library, and Tracey Bennett, president of the nonprofit San Antonio Library Foundation, shouldered the exhibit’s creation with Hays Lane in 2008. The original show traveled to eight states in four years, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the war’s end. That tour included San Antonio and many of its military bases, and reached thousands of local high school students.
Hays Lane said it had been a dream of hers, Salazar’s, and Bennett’s to take the exhibit to France, so she started making phone calls to galleries and museums there.
In 2014, the Library Foundation sent her to France and England to gauge and generate further interest. One venue took nearly seven years to organize, while others came through U.S. Embassy connections and through San Antonio and Berlin resident Angelika Jansen.
Hays Lane also approached the Commissioners Court regarding a possible partnership after she learned it was looking for a tricentennial project.
“They were all in,” Hays Lane said. “We talked monthly – they were a huge boost to our project and the show.”
The entire showcase ended up being a lesson for many in U.S. wartime history. The United States didn’t enter the war until April 1917, three years after it began. But as Germans continued torpedoing U.S. merchant and passenger ships, including the RMS Lusitania, the U.S. could no longer stay neutral. To promote patriotism and military support among a reluctant citizenry, President Woodrow Wilson looked to launch a public relations campaign.
“George Creel was Wilson’s man,” Hays Lane said. “He was a public relations specialist, an advertising and newspaper man. He immediately got to work pulling artists together to create original paintings or etchings for lithographs as part of the Committee for Public Information.”
The day after the U.S. declared war, popular artists, illustrators, and cartoonists got to work creating more than 700 designs for posters, ads, and leaflets printed by the thousands and distributed in cities and towns.
“It was almost Big Brother-esque,” Hays Lane said, “because these prints were everywhere – hospitals, universities, post offices, schools, every public place. This is the way they were financing the war – pushing war bonds – and also getting the word out to serve in the war.
“At that time the presses were owned by German families so the Budweisers and other big breweries would underwrite the cost of this propaganda to help show their patriotism. The prints were done in different languages to appeal to newly arrived immigrants – ‘Show your patriotism by going to war.’ They were trying to rope in as many immigrant groups as they could.”
Hays Lane said she has relished learning about the participating artists. Whether they were classically trained or ad illustrators, their individual styles gave the posters variety.
“A woman wrapped in an American flag with juicy red lips and hair blowing in the wind shows that even 100 years ago, sex sells,” Hays Lane said. A movie poster designer illustrated a propaganda poster resembling a sensational cinema ad. A gay artist depicted women as men in women’s clothing.
“They each have these wonderful characteristics, and they’re everything from tiny ones to large banners as high as the ceiling,” she said. “So it was hard picking 40 that could go on the road. It took months and months to go through all 600.”
She finally chose those with the most iconic American imagery, positive messaging, and minimal anti-German sentiment, projecting a unified American front, though that wasn’t necessarily reality.
In the exhibit’s tour through Europe, wall placards tell the story of how San Antonio earned its name of Military City, USA.
San Antonio was a natural choice for training soldiers and pilots when the country entered World War I woefully unprepared. Forts in the area had sheltered armies since the 17th century, and Fort Sam Houston, established when the Republic of Texas was becoming a state, was at one time the nation’s largest military base. In 1915, the first aviation facility in the country, Dodd Field, was built on its grounds.
An essay titled “Battle-Ready City: San Antonio in the Great War” in the poster exhibition’s catalog is one of three delineating San Antonio’s role in the war, the significance of the posters as art and propaganda, and on writers of World War I.
In “Battle-Ready City,” former San Antonio and history professor Char Miller of Pomona College wrote that San Antonio’s bases proliferated during the war. San Antonio already trained soldiers at Camp Bullis, Camp Wood, and Fort Sam Houston. Another base, Camp Travis, “became a self-functioning city replete with 1,400 temporary buildings built in three months and in which more than 100,000 – approximately 10 percent of all Americans who served in Europe during the War – were housed, fed, and taught,” Miller wrote.
Dodd Field was supplanted by the enormous Kelly Field, whose success birthed Gosport – later Brooks – Field where pilots learned to fly hot air balloons and airships.
When the war ended, Kelly Field pilots in training cursed the Germans for “having lain down on the job before they had a chance to get over there and prove their mettle as aviators,” Miller wrote. But those who had seen the carnage knew better.
Hays Lane has accompanied the exhibit and given countless lectures on its art, San Antonio, and soldier stories.
One soldier whose story she particularly likes to tell is that of David B. Barkley, a Mexican-American from Laredo who kept his heritage a secret because minority soldiers weren’t allowed to serve in combat. Even as Germany was seeking to end the war, Barkley volunteered to swim a river into German territory on a reconnaissance mission. On the swim over, he dodged German bullets, but on the return trip, he drowned from cramping.
In 1919, Barkley was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1921 his body was returned to lie in state at the Alamo, only the second person to receive that honor.
Another connection for Hays Lane is with Paul S. Hays, her grandfather, who left his southern Indiana community for the first time to serve in the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps in Italy. He was awarded the Croce al Merito di Guerra, or War Merit Cross, for evacuating soldiers and flu-stricken citizens.
A question Hays Lane said she’s most frequently asked is the collection’s worth. The answer has changed from “not much” to doubling in the last 12 years.
“[Steven] Spielberg collects them, George Lucas collects them,” she said of the propaganda posters. “They’ve become extremely popular.”
The catalog of the exhibit is available through Amazon benefiting the Texana Collection of the San Antonio Public Library. It also can checked out digitally at mysapl.org.