The invention of the lithographic printing press in 1798 did much to change the way we shared information. It wasn’t long before broadsheets and posters became a common way to attract attention and reach a wide audience.
Poster production became even more popular after the introduction of three-stone colour lithography in the 1860’s. Colour posters could be printed in large numbers and at a relatively low cost.
This method of communicating with people was perhaps never more effective than during the First World War when governments on both sides of the conflict reached out to the masses to solicit their support.
This virtual exhibit focuses on a selection of Canadian posters from the First World War and, in particular, those that can be found in the Archives of Ontario poster collection (C 233).
At the outbreak of the First World War, Canada was tied closely to Britain through its constitution but even greater ties were the ones that ordinary Canadians saw as those that bound them to the mother country. This sense of patriotism and support for Britain was a theme that appeared over and over in Canadian war posters.
British toughness and steadfastness during times of crisis was often represented by an image of John Bull, a cartoon character originally developed by English satirical artists in the 1790s. John Bull appeared as the dependable, stoic, country squire in the London magazine Punch during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His image frequently found its way on to Canadian posters as a British icon.
Throughout the war, the design of posters was similar to those originating in Britain and echoed many of the same themes. Typically, the posters were designed to encourage the public to invest in government Victory Bonds to help pay for the war, increase manufacturing productivity, donate money to organizations such as local societies of the Red Cross and Patriotic Funds and, more importantly, to encourage eligible men to join the armed forces.
Conscription in Canada did not occur until 1917 so, in order to replace casualties and increase the size of Canada’s commitment to the conflict, we had to rely almost entirely on volunteers. Unlike the approach taken by British posters, those produced in Canada often targeted specific cultural and ethnic groups such as French Canadians, and people of Scottish and Irish descent.
The appeal of a pretty girl’s face is timeless and in 1917 accounted for over 75,000 posters and contributed to the raising of $419 million in two weeks.
Miss Faith Berry of Toronto, who posed for the picture used in the poster to the right, was given a $500 bond and a bouquet of flowers in recognition of her contribution to the war effort.
Canadian posters were also different from other countries in that as a hostile army was not overrunning Canada, the posters tended not to focus on violence in their design in order to make a point. Often poster designs used ridicule and humour as a theme when referring directly to the enemy.
Most posters were produced by the government but there were many privately commissioned posters, as well. Local regiments, corporations, well-to-do individuals and charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, also got into the act. Follow the links below to learn more about Canadian Posters from the First World War.