Share this article

print logo

Trove of World War I posters opens view into Buffalo history

In the Central Library's second-floor exhibition space, a wall papered with reproductions of World War I-era posters commands visitors to take a closer look.

The posters, drawn from the library's collection of 2,000 pieces of propaganda printed during the war, implore Buffalonians to dig deep to fund the war effort. They urge citizens to conserve food, knit socks and sweaters, and assemble care packages for soldiers overseas. And they employ time-tested strategies of persuasion to recruit young men and women to put their lives on the line in Europe and make sacrifices at home.

The colorful wall of posters is designed to draw visitors into a much deeper exploration of World War I and Buffalo's involvement in it. The two-year exhibition, which tells dozens of stories about contributions in blood and treasure from Buffalo citizens, opens Saturday.

Its title, "Buffalo Never Fails: The Queen City and World War I," is taken from the most popular slogans used here during fundraising drives for the war and the headline of a poster illustrated by Buffalo artist Alexander O. Levy. The show, part of a new effort by the library to showcase its undersung collections of Buffalo historical materials, follows its popular "Milestones of Science" exhibition featuring priceless copies of important books.

The opening — at 10 a.m. Nov. 18, about seven months after the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the war — will feature a 21-gun salute, a bugler playing taps and a rendition of the national anthem from local members of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

The impetus for the show, said Special Collections Manager Marguerite Cheman, was the library's impressive trove of posters from Buffalo and overseas.

Alexander O. Levy's design for a World War I fundraising poster is on view in the Central Library. (Courtesy of Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries)

"We have such an amazing collection of posters and unique items," said Cheman, who organized the exhibition with fellow librarians Charles Alaimo, Amy Pickard and others. "The posters themselves are phenomenal, and we want to be able to showcase them."

The collection, donated to the library shortly after the war by Buffalo real estate maven and attorney Edward Michael, features an array of posters from the United States and Europe. They were designed with specific goals: to raise money for the war effort, recruit soldiers and Red Cross volunteers, and encourage citizens to conserve food and resources at home so they could be sent abroad.

The show features many Buffalo-specific posters, including Levy's portrayal of Columbia (a popular symbol of American patriotism at the time) towering over a huddled group of Buffalonians offering up contributions to the war effort. Another poster, featuring the words "Buffalo Will See It Through" printed on a stark red background with a star in the center, stands in contrast to most other posters because of its graphic and conceptual simplicity.

As the exhibition shows, the local propaganda was successful: Buffalo, a city of about half a million in 1917, raised $250 million — about $4.8 billion in today's dollars — through Liberty Loan Drives and fundraising efforts led by the city's various ethnic communities. About 19,000 local men enlisted and traveled overseas.

"The posters were definite vehicles for propaganda," Cheman said. "There was no social media; there was no television. That was how they got the message out, and they were designed with that in mind: patriotism with a little guilt and fear of the enemy."

The library's exhibition is divided into several themes. It begins in 1915 with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German submarine. One case contains a letter from Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard instructing a family member before his trip on the Lusitania that "if the Kaiser gets us," his will could be found in the family safe. Hubbard and his wife, along with more than a thousand others, died in the attack, which helped galvanize Americans to enter the war.

A poster encouraging young women to join the Red Cross in its efforts to help World War I soldiers is part of "Buffalo Never Fails" in the Central Library. (Courtesy of Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries)

The show continues with a look into Buffalo's fundraising efforts and the contributions and struggles of its vibrant ethnic communities, from local Germans gradually shifting their loyalty away from the fatherland to Irish Buffalonians reluctant to enter the fray because of British imperialism.

"At a time when the average household income was only $650 a year, we raised millions. $250 million just in this community," Cheman said. "Buffalo was a booming community in 1915. We had a lot of stuff going for us. Industry was going great and the city was still growing. So there was some wealth here, but there were a lot of regular folks like us."

Other aspects of the show touch on Buffalo soldiers who died in action or went on to illustrious careers in politics and civic life, the contributions of local companies such as the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company (later Curtiss-Wright) and soldiers' return home and readjustment to domestic life.

The exhibition, stocked with artifacts and ephemera donated by local collectors and institutions, includes interactive elements including a stereoscopic image viewer where visitors can view the life of a World War I soldier in 3-D.

It all adds up to a 360-degree view of the war and how it changed Western New York. And, said exhibition co-organizer Pickard, it carries an important message for contemporary audiences.

"I think in the current political climate," Pickard said, "it's worthwhile to revisit and think about the consequences of world actions."


There are no comments - be the first to comment