Students Find WWI Posters

| June 13, 2008

While working recently in the blueprint room at Sweet Briar College’s physical plant, students conducting an energy audit of campus buildings found a dozen World War I propaganda posters.

Thinking the rolled papers were blueprints or building plans, Sara Sheppard ’10 picked them up and placed them on a table. Upon further investigation, however, she and the other students discovered they were looking at something entirely different.

“[Sara] quickly noticed that they were illustrations and that sparked everyone’s interest,” Kelly Mauri ’10, one of the four students working on the audit, said. “We all gathered around the table in the dimly lit room … and rolled open the posters. We all gasped when we noticed what they were and how old they were.”

What the students found were posters issued by the U.S. Food Administration during “The War to End All Wars.” Illustrated with dramatic images such as hungry women and children and battle scenes, the posters encouraged “loyal Americans” to conserve food as a means to end the war.

“Victory is a question of stamina,” one poster reads. Others urge Americans to “Send the wheat, meat, fats, sugar, the fuel for fighters,” “Conserve the cause of freedom” and “Save a loaf a week. Help win the war.”

“Sara first noted that they were World War One posters, and I remember reading about the rationing and supporting the soldiers,” Mauri said. “Aimee [Savage ‘10] mentioned the need to take them and bring them somewhere to be seen and appreciated.”

The students contacted Christian Carr, director of the Sweet Briar Museum for advice, and she suggested they take the posters to Lisa Johnston, head of the public services division at Sweet Briar’s Mary Helen Cochran Library.

Johnston, who has been at Sweet Briar for 18 years, was delighted with the discovery. “It’s the first set of this type of thing we’ve found in awhile,” she said Wednesday, as she used stacks of books to flatten the fragile posters. “One of the things I love about working here is all the accidental finds. People just find things.”

As an example, she pointed to a glass display case in the library’s main hall. Inside was a Chinese wedding dress found two years ago in a box in the Sweet Briar archives. A note found with the dress indicates it was “worn by Miss Ada Benson on the occasion of her marriage to Mr. Wilmoth A. Farmer.”

Benson and Farmer were Methodist missionaries, the note continues, and the dress was donated by a Mrs. William Ogden. “We didn’t even know we had it,” Johnston said, adding later that the note is the only clue to the item’s provenance.

A quick online search found that an Ada Beeson Farmer, born in 1871, was a missionary in China from 1902 until her death in 1911. She also is the subject of a book published by her husband in 1912, “Ada Beeson Farmer: A Missionary Heroine of Kuang Si, South China.”

Over the years, there have been other finds. Two years ago, Johnston found a rare 18th-century book, “Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia” by Robert Adam, tucked into the oversized book shelves. “When I put my hand on it, I knew it was something,” she said.

Fifteen years ago, a suitcase full of souvenirs from a professor’s trip to the Soviet Union in the 1930s was discovered under a flight of stairs in the library. Inside the suitcase belonging to former sociology professor Gladys Boone were dolls, postcards, pins and other items.

As for the posters, Johnston hopes they can someday be framed for everyone to see. “I think these things are so cool,” she said, as she carefully flipped through a few. “I’d love to hang them up. They’re extremely fragile and they need to be preserved somehow. These came apart in my hands, practically.”

To learn more about World War I propaganda posters, visit the National Archives’ Web site orwww.firstworldwar.com.

— Suzanne Ramsey

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