“Do Something” via the Library of Congress.
One hundred years ago on July 28, 1914, World War I erupted after Austria-Hungary fired the first shots invading Serbia in response to Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip’s shooting and killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo at the end of June. The world as we know it would never be the same.
Europe was engulfed in war and death. Technological and industrial advances helped develop more heinous and vast means of killing: poison gas, tanks, trench warfare and airplanes. Belgium and France became mass killing fields filled with blood, mud, rats and mangled bodies.
Note: An exhibit titled “Your Country Calls! Posters of the First World War” has just opened at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, continuing through Nov. 3.
Philadelphia Evening Ledger, June 1, 1917.
The United States entered the war April 16, 1917, after the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships by German submarines and the exposure of the Zimmerman telegram between Germany and Mexico. Munitions plants opened, many hiring women, soldiers prepared for battle and armaments were organized.
President Woodrow Wilson implored Americans to rally behind and support the growing war effort by every means possible. Bond drives to raise vast sums needed to arm American soldiers covered the land. Rationing of certain foods and products to aid the troops fell on U.S. citizens, who were asked to conserve water, food and power.
Patriotic organizations like the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, the National Chamber of Commerce, Daughters of the American Revolution, National League for Women’s Service, and the Army and Navy Leagues joined to form the National Committee of Patriotic Societies in Washington, D.C., to get Americans more involved in the war effort. They took as their motto: “Remember that your first duty is to your country and that you will find your highest personal success in public service.”
Popular entertainment focused on the Great War to show support and love of country as well as way to quickly make a buck. The film industry released patriotic films such as Mary Pickford’s “The Little American” and D. W. Griffith’s “Hearts of the World.” George M. Cohan composed the classic song “Over There.” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag” embraced going to war. Enthusiasm was high as Americans naively expected their entry would quickly end the killing.
Renowned illustrator James Montgomery Flagg designed a dynamic, demanding Uncle Sam for the cover of Leslie’s Weekly, imploring the nation to get up and do something to support the cause. Flagg strongly supported the American cause and received permission from Leslie’s to reproduce his forceful illustration for various war efforts. He designed a striking poster for the U. S. Army in late May 1917, showing his Uncle Sam pointing and exclaiming, “I Want You.” The government widely distributed the poster to recruiting offices as they sought out able-bodied men to join the cause.
Matlack Price and Horace Brown wrote a book in 1918 on behalf of the government’s publicity campaign called “How to Put in Patriotic Posters the Stuff That Makes People STOP – LOOK – ACT!” Very presciently, the authors list ways to create posters (or promote causes) to dramatically sell campaigns, noting how powerful words and images can shape the hearts and minds of viewers. To capture the greatest number of eyes, designers should “appeal to emotion rather than intellect, employ simple and direct visual images,” be bold in forming public opinion.
Variety, via Archive.org.
Flagg noted in his autobiography, “Roses and Buckshot,” that he was extremely active “in poster designing and in motion pictures for the service … and made the first poster of the war.” A War Department official showed him a sketch of Uncle Sam pointing at viewers with the caption, “I Want You.” He asked Flagg if he recognized it, with the artist calling it a poor copy of his Leslie’s Weekly cover. Someone else tried to claim it as his own, but Flagg’s original drawing was found and employed to print recruiting posters. Flagg’s dedicated work led New York Gov. Whitman to name him military artist of New York on June 21, 1917. Flagg designed several striking posters for the government, and also turned his attention to sheet music
Joining together with the National Committee on Patriotic Service, Flagg received permission from Leslie’s to reproduce his powerful illustration on the sheet music cover for the late 1917 song “Do Something,” composed by Edward Laska. Laska had composed for the stage and Tin Pan Alley as early as 1906, and now wrote songs for Waterson, Berlin, & Snyder, Irving Berlin’s publishing company. The company jumped at the chance to work with the National Committee not only to stimulate patriotism but also to drive sales.
The song’s lyrics pushed Americans to donate their time, money, and energy in helping the war effort, especially if they couldn’t go overseas and serve. The chorus pronounced:
“Just go and do something, do something do what you can,
It’s up to you, every woman or man,
If you can fight, then go do your share,
Or do something here that will help them out there;
A thousand jobs now have to be done;
And if we do them, the war will be won,
So go and do something, do something,
Do what you can, for dear old Uncle Sam.”
On the back of the sheet music, the National Committee of Patriotic Societies listed ideas everyone could do in supporting the War Effort: buy bonds, eat wisely, support the president’s policies, entertain soldiers in their neighborhoods, be informed and report any disloyalty. People could also volunteer to work with local aid groups such as the American Red Cross, knit mufflers and sweaters, join the Four Minute Men and address the public on the cause, “help teach immigrants English,” preserve fruits and vegetables, and plant victory gardens.
Variety reported in December 1917 that the committee hoped to get Americans more involved in the war effort through use of the song. “The lyric of this song, besides the rousing quality of a patriotic song, carries with it the idea, the plea and the command of President Wilson and every branch of government” to do something for the war effort. The United States was fully engaged in the war at this point, sending massive amounts of troops and material into battle. They needed regular citizens to do their part in keeping the machine running.
On Nov. 11,1918, at 11 am, fighting stopped. The Great War unfortunately did not end all wars. The century continued to see new ones, and Flagg’s Uncle Sam came out of retirement once again demanding able-bodied men serve. May the day come when peace rules the Earth.