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 The Poster as Propaganda

Pursuasion by Dave McIntosho
​Legion Magazine November 1988
Posted in military canteens and other public places in Winnipeg in 1942 was the following message: "People who invite you to parties do not expect as payment the details of our equipment, movements, orders. If they do, report them, and we will throw a party for them. Military information is one subject where it is not more blessed to give than to receive."

Such warnings were as familiar as ration books to those who lived through WW II, and though the advice in Winnipeg was a little on the wordy side, you couldn't miss the point. In that respect, it was typical of that venerably ubiquitous genre, the war poster.

The first Canadian military posters, or broadsides, were used for recruiting in the 1885 Riel Rebellion. In WW I, posters were produced either officially or on its own initiative by the Canadian advertising industry for the Patriotic Fund, Red Cross, YMCA, Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army and other groups. Later, a war poster service was established In WW II, the production and distribution of posters was more haphazard, at least in the early stages, and surprisingly little information survives about the artists, who commissioned their work and how the posters were issued.

No government department took control until mid-1940, when the office of the Director of Public Information was established under the ministry of National War Services. It was succeeded by the Wartime Information Board, which acted for the departments of National Defence and Munitions and Supply, National Salvage Office, Canadian Food Board, and other agencies. The National Film Board became responsible for design and distribution.

In 1940, the National War Finance Board launched campaigns for victory bonds, stamps and certificates. There were national and local contests for poster designs. ln 1941, A.J. Casson of the Group of Seven artists beat out 110 rivals in a V-bond poster contest. Posters contributed enormously to bond drives. They appeared not only in newspapers, magazines and other literature, but on billboards and lamp posts and in factories, offices and street cars. It would have been difficult to avoid them. Those shown here were small enough to insert in letters and cigarette cartons. Some appeared on blotters and letterheads.

The poster generally considered to have been most effective was "Let's Go, Canada," showing a soldier charging with fixed bayonet. Despite that, Canada's wartime posters were relatively gentle. Directed not at the enemy but at the home front and encouragement of Canadian servicemen overseas, they were intended as a cheerful spur.

The first WW I poster, for the Naval Service of Canada, shows the cruiser
Niobe and advertises "great attractions for men and boys." You can see that one, and about 4,000 others, at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. 

With thanks to Beatrice M. Turner of London, Ont.

To see a couple of interesting articles and a large number of WWII posters issued by the Government of Canada to sell Victory Bonds and distribute the war message via propaganda as assembled by Bill Hillman, please go to the CATP Museum web page at: