For the first time since the 1990s and only the second time since its acquisition in 1941, a billboard from World War II is on display at the National Museum of American History. Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the Division of Political History, spoke to intern Leanne Elston about the history behind the billboard and other wartime graphic art.
These days, before the museum opens to the public, the only sounds that generally punctuate the quiet of the exhibition floors come from the ongoing construction of the museum's west wing. On a recent Monday morning, though, a different kind of behind-the-scenes activity was underway right next door to the area closed for construction.
The bright, 70-year-old image of an American flag was visible over a semicircle of partitions as I approached what would soon be a display of a billboard from 1941. Stepping behind the barriers, I got a close-up look at a piece of art many Americans would have seen on billboards across 18,000 cities in the early 1940s. Only the first six out of twelve panels were currently installed when I arrived, but they formed almost a complete American flag, and it made a powerful statement—which, of course, is the point.
During World War II, "posters were a major form of communication. It was a way of reaching people in unusual places," Rubenstein explained. "The idea was, if you could put up billboards all across the country, you could help motivate and communicate to the nation about the war emergency we were facing."
Posters combined art and advertising to mobilize the American public into supporting the war effort and "working for the war." They conveyed messages calling upon the public for help, whether by purchasing war bonds or simply showing up on time to work.
Many Americans today would point to J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster as iconic of World War II propaganda images, but in reality, most Americans wouldn't have seen that poster when it was originally displayed. "Rosie the Riveter," the popular name for the figure portrayed in the poster, appeared only internally at Westinghouse Electric, the company that commissioned the image. However, the billboard now on display in the National Museum of American History appeared throughout the entire country and represents a truly pervasive piece of American graphic art.
Installing the billboard presented a unique challenge. In the 1940s, billboards were pasted onto a board or wall—not exactly an option here for preservation purposes—and any imperfections could be touched up. The image was originally modeled to be seen from afar and above eye-level; the new display allows visitors to see the billboard from a different, much closer perspective. With this important detail in mind, and with twelve separate sheets that needed to line up, the process took hours and involved constant adjustments. "This one was discovering as we were going," Rubenstein said. It was a lot of trial and error as each panel was meticulously lined up, assessed, and then readjusted.
The careful efforts proved well worth it, though. The completed image of an American flag blowing in the wind and petitioning the public's help now brightens up the area and offers a taste of what's to come when the West Wing reopens. Situated across from the statue of Columbia and near the Star-Spangled Banner, the billboard adds another striking American symbol to the museum's second floor.
Watch Rubenstein and curator colleague William Bird, Jr. discuss the billboard in this video from Smithsonian Magazine. Visit this online exhibition for more about World War II posters, and learn about another iconic piece of American graphic art in this blog post about Uncle Sam.
Leanne Elston is an intern in the New Media Department. She has also blogged about how we preserve Jim Henson puppets.