A Visual Conversation: Media Images During Wartime, 1898-1918


Denise Spivey

Florida State University



This article is an examination of mass media images produced in the United States during the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War and World War I (WW I). These images, from a variety of mainstream and alternative media, were part of a vast visual conversation. When examined with care, they open a window onto the cultural landscape of the turn of the last century. This essay uses that window to analyze the way feminine and masculine gender roles are sharpened during wartime and are incorporated into the rhetoric of both the pro and anti-war factions. It might be argued that mainstream America envisioned the wars as Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling did: a virtuous exercise in white masculinity.[1] As the dominant ideology, this shaped the framework for debate for many if not most of the important issues at the turn of the last century. In their own visual rhetoric, anti-imperialists, socialists, and woman suffragists all represented men and women in roles laden with gendered expectations similar to those created by the pro-war mainstream media.



In 1898, the US was poised to turn its attention from the Western Hemisphere to the creation of an overseas empire and the development of an international role that would ultimately lead to American involvement in WW I. The Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War (1898) was one of the earliest examples of full-blown American Imperialism. The war was officially intended to liberate Cuba from Spain, but US motivations were complex. Humanitarianism, paternalism, and simple greed all played a role promoting the eventual conflict. Some proponents of the war, most notably future president Theodore Roosevelt, even argued that the US needed a war to revitalize its national character and save the men of the country from effeminacy.[2] This attitude is present in some of the political cartoons of the war and in some of the visual and verbal criticisms of President William McKinley (in office 1897-1901), as he delayed war with Spain longer than some war enthusiasts wished. 

Other proponents included the famed “yellow press” newspapers, known more for their sensationalism than their accuracy. The most notable of these were Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Journal and Randolph Hearst’s New York World. These publishers had an interest in whipping up American jingoism so they could publish news articles that would help them to achieve dominance in their journalistic rivalry. Depictions of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War were not as government-directed as later wartime media would become, but it was plentiful and generally supportive nonetheless. The war was not without its critics, however. Anti-imperialists like Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Jane Addams squared off against the pro-war jingoes in public discourse, but the anti-imperialist impact was limited.[3] 

During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (1913-1920), his “Missionary Diplomacy” continued to increase American influence around the world, culminating in US participation in “The Great War,” as WW I (1914-1918) was once known. The war began in Europe in 1914. The US maintained an officially neutral stance until April, 1917. During the intervening years, Wilson and many Americans were drawn increasingly to support Britain, France, and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers). When the US finally declared war against the Central Powers, Wilson claimed it was necessary to “make the world safe for Democracy,” but Wilson had also spent much of his first term arguing that the war was not worth US involvement. In fact, Wilson’s campaign slogan in 1916 had been “He Kept Us Out of War.” In order to convince the American people that the about-face made sense, the president and his administration began an intensive propaganda and censorship campaign like none seen before in the US.[4] 

Less than a week after the declaration of war, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and hired journalist George Creel to head it. The CPI, often referred to as the Creel Committee, developed into a massive propaganda machine. Historians James Mock and Cedric Larson describe the CPI as a “gargantuan advertising agency” with a hold on the nation’s media similar to what a totalitarian dictatorship would have held.[5] Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota credit the Committee with unifying the voices of opinion makers so that most of them willingly promoted the war as a righteous crusade for democracy.[6] Creel himself claimed that his goal was “to keep patriotism at ‘white heat.’”[7]

US media had consistently expressed enthusiasm for the Spanish-American- Cuban-Filipino War. During WW I, the US witnessed an almost complete integration of government and mass media in the campaign to support the war. The CPI provided directives to editors, illustrators, fiction writers, and even advertisers. While during the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War filmmakers such as Thomas Edison had produced pro-war films, Creel and his deputies in the Committee’s Division of Films mobilized WWI-era filmmakers to the extent that at least two 1918 Hollywood films were simply pro-war propaganda: “The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin and “To Hell with the Kaiser.”[8]  Better known today are the propaganda posters from WW I, some of which will be examined for this article. These posters demonstrate the quantity and quality of propaganda that is possible when government, advertising, and the visual arts combine forces in a coordinated campaign.[9]

Despite the best efforts of the Creel Committee, the Great War was not unanimously applauded. Some of the pacifists and anti-imperialists who had been outraged by the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war were converted to Wilson’s cause. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, for instance, had been an anti-imperialist during the previous conflict but worked to mobilize labor unions in support of WW I. On the other hand, prominent socialists Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood were both jailed for their anti-war activities. Jane Addams, best known as the founder of the Settlement House movement, continued to argue against war in general. [10] Most woman suffragists, on the other hand, supported the war effort in a variety of ways but also publicly argued that their patriotic efforts should be rewarded with equal civil and political rights. These alternative voices produced and distributed media images of their own to publicize their points of view, some of which will be examined in this paper.


Visual Rhetoric

The images created during both these wars are often considered propaganda, here used to mean rhetoric of any kind intended to persuade by evoking an emotional response. If the predominance of representations of vulnerable women is any indication, propagandists assumed that this would be one of the most heart-wrenching types of imagery. This sensationalizing of sexual violence for propaganda purposes is also evident in some news stories featured prominently in the “yellow press,” such as the well-known incident involving a jailed Cuban girl named Evangelina Cisneros who was rescued from captivity by one of Hearst’s New York World reporters. Of the “yellow journalists,” Hearst has the dubious honor of being the most prone to invent stories. Hearst allegedly instructed artist Frederick Remington, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.” Figure 1 is one of the pictures that may have inspired this anecdote.[11] 

                                                      Figure 1

Remington drew this illustration to accompany an article about a woman strip-searched by Spanish authorities. Only later was it reported by Heart’s rival Joseph Pulitzer that the woman had been searched by police matrons and not the leering men portrayed here. Note that Remington’s illustration emphasizes the woman’s whiteness in contrast to the men’s swarthy coloring, despite the fact that the woman in the actual incident was Cuban and unlikely to have been any fairer skinned than the agents who searched her.

Figure 2          


Figure 2, one of the best known from WW I, is also an allusion to a real event.[12] In this case, it references the sinking of the Lusitania. The drowned woman is presented sensually and yet maternally. Her arms are still wrapped protectively around her child, her shoulder is bared seductively, and her dress clings to her shapely legs. Both of these pictures present women as helpless, sexualized victims in need of rescue by noble American men. Figures 3 and 4 also take up the maternal theme, but in this case the mothers are alive and grieving for the dying or wounded. “The Cuban Mother” in Figure 3 is holding her dead or dying son while a vulture lurks in the background.[13] The son has the face of a full-grown man, and presumably is not a child but a revolutionary soldier. The mother’s face is not even shown. She is an anonymous symbol and, like the women in previous illustrations, demonstrates feminine inability to protect herself or her loved ones.

Likewise, Figure 4 represents “The Greatest Mother in the World,” the Madonna in one of the most famous WWI-era Red Cross posters.[14] This Red Cross nurse cradles a much smaller soldier in a stretcher in her lap. This is reminiscent of the Pieta figures in which Mary holds the dead Christ in her lap. Although Paret, et al describe this picture as a portrayal of “female power and masculine helplessness,” the combination of nurse and mother in this image reinforces women’s nurturing role but in its most passive sense. [15] Little in this poster supports the idea of an active role for women in wartime: the nurse looks imploringly up to the corner of the frame, not directly at the viewer. The allusion to Mary adds a religious element that only reinforces the idea that this inactive, submissive pose is divinely ordained.


Figure 3


Figure 4

By contrast, the ideal male behavior during wartime is clearly assertive and perhaps even aggressive. Artists gave the idea of the sissy great play during both of these wars. In Figure 5, President McKinley is portrayed as a coward who holds the manly Uncle Sam back, while Sam attempts to protect a woman, probably the symbolic representation of Cuba, who is cringing under attack from a vulture.[16]  People who did not support the war, this implies, are cowards like McKinley, and out of step with the energetic and masculine American ideal. 

Figure 5


WW I posters used similar imagery. Figure 6, “Protect the Nation’s Honor,” portrays Uncle Sam demanding American men come to the rescue of America and American womanhood.[17] In this poster, Columbia appears devastated by some attack, perhaps even a sexual assault. This is implied by the use of the term “honor” and by Columbia’s cowering posture, with just a hint of an exposed breast. In “Halt the Hun,” (Figure 7) there is an addition of a child in danger and seems designed to appeal to the masculine protective instinct.[18] In it, the faceless German soldier is pushed aside by the lantern-jawed American man. Both defenders hold swords, the typical iconography of a noble cause. In Figure 6, Uncle Sam seems to be offering the sword to those who are brave and bold enough to be almost knights in the service of the US. The man in Figure 7 has taken up the challenge, but he is so idealized as to protect the woman without even using his sword. His strong arm suffices.


Figure 6



Figure 7

In both cases there is a clear gender division: women are vulnerable and maternal and men are either attackers or defenders. While these images damage women’s chances for equal respect in an atmosphere in which physical prowess receives the highest respect, it also damaged men’s ability to step out of the proscribed masculine role. Men’s willingness to question the war was undermined by an atmosphere that implied that no real man would resist a war when so many vulnerable women need protecting? During WW I, former President Theodore Roosevelt, adamant as always on the question of masculinity, made this point clear in a speech to the Harvard Club in which he called pacifists “a whole raft of sexless creatures.”[19]


Figure 8

Men who did not protect women were, like McKinley in the earlier cartoon, seen as weak and unmanly. The US soldier was often visually contrasted with a figure known as the “slacker.” The slang term “slacker” developed during WW I to describe men who shirk military service.[20] In Figure 8, the slacker is presented almost fearfully peering out the window while soldiers march by outside.[21] His glasses, fancy suit, and hesitant pose combine to present an image of passivity and effeminacy. Even the space he inhabits is connected more with the domestic, feminine realm than the public space occupied by the soldiers outside.[22] Thus, when the artist asks “On Which Side of the Window are You?” she is asking her male audience if they are true men.

An additional and important feature in this image is that the soldiers appear in company, representing both the promise of manly camaraderie in the military and the pressure of pro-war public sentiment. Like the vast majority of the propaganda art, this theme was thoroughly coordinated with the other branches of the CPI. Creel’s famous “Four Minute Men,” the volunteer army of speakers, received talking points on this very topic. They were encouraged to emphasize that “fighters despise a slacker.” Specifically, the CPI recommended they tell their audience, “How the red-blooded American soldier abhors a slacker! The traitor he hates! The coward he pities! But the slacker who deliberately puts the burden on his brother? No words can express the contempt!”[23] 

Anti-war rhetoric during the two wars also demonstrated some remarkable similarities despite the fifteen years between the wars. In Figure 9, “Republicanism Down to Date” an illustration published in by the anti-McKinley journal The Verdict, Uncle Sam is no longer the fighter from earlier figures.[24] Instead he is the victim of America’s growing imperial aspirations. It appears that Uncle Sam is being used as a silencer for the cannon, as Mark Hanna, a Republican leader and prominent imperialist, advises a cowering McKinley, “Don’t be afraid Mac. It won’t make much noise.” This is reminiscent of the famous quote that Admiral “Dewey took Manila with the loss of one man and all our institutions.” Some anti-imperialists were much concerned with the potential consequences to democratic necessities like free speech and elective government if the US were to retain possession of the Philippines in particular.


Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 10, “Conscription,” was a WW I- era illustration from the Socialist journal The Masses.[25] This was one of the images used in the court case against the journal when it was censored by the Wilson administration and run out of business during the resultant court battle. As might be expected from a socialist perspective, this artist was particularly concerned with the human cost of the draft and gives a very literal interpretation of the term ‘cannon fodder.’ This illustrator chose mostly naked female figures, despite the draft’s primary impact on men. Like the pro-war images, this anti-war picture uses the image of the vulnerable and sensual female victim to solicit an emotional response from the viewer. 

A more striking example of the similarities between pro and anti-war visual rhetoric can be seen in Figures 11 and 12, one from a WW I enlistment poster and the other from The Masses. This was particularly evident during WW I, when alternative voices borrowed the mainstream pro-war media’s visual rhetoric and used it to critique the war. WW I illustrations routinely portrayed Germany as a monster abducting a female personification of Europe or America. This is the case in Figure 11, an enlistment poster in which Germany is presented remarkably like King Kong.[26]\ Here, a large gorilla wearing a Pickelhaube, a traditional German helmet, carries a much smaller woman in his clutches. The beast is arriving on the shores of America, fresh from his rampage through Europe, represented by the woman in his arms. The female victim is again sexualized, with an exposed torso. The Masses used the same kind of imagery in Figure 12, “Come on In, America, the Blood’s Fine,” to present war as the abducting monster instead.[27]  These images are much less sexual, although still female. The focus is on the menace of the skeletal figure of war.





Figure 11


                                                        Figure 12

Women suffragists used gendered images in a similar fashion. They took full advantage of the WW I-era “slacker” stereotype in their visual arguments for woman suffrage. A mainstream example of the type borrowed by the woman suffrage cartoonists can be seen in Figure 13, “Men Wanted.”[28] It was created for Life by Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson girl illustrations and head of the CPI’s Pictorial Division. Gibson, although known for his strong female images, also used seductive imagery to applaud soldiers and ridicule slackers. In this image he implies that military men are more virile than civilians. The slacker lurking on the corner here is round-shouldered and unattractive. He wears a dandy’s clothes but does not even get a glance from the young woman walking with the sailor. The sailor, by contrast, appears taller and is certainly more muscular than the other man. The sailor looks down at the woman protectively and somewhat possessively while the other man looks on with dull eyes. The slacker, in an insult to his virility and his sexuality, actually seems to have little interest in the attractive woman. This cartoon seems to imply that, since women are attracted to men bold enough to join the military, men who do not join must not find women attractive.



Figure 13                                                                     Figure 14

In the next image, Figure 14, a suffrage cartoonist used the slacker as a foil for suffragists.[29] The illustration is titled “-But He Can Fight,” a reference to the anti-suffrage argument that only those who can serve in the military (i.e. men) or have the physical strength to enforce the laws have a right to vote. This man is clearly not serving in the military. He looks more like a dandy, and probably a drunk as well. The only figure of activity in this illustration is the woman doing the dishes. In other words, the man is good for nothing at all. Note that the man in this image is remarkably similar to the slacker in Figure 13. Like him, he is presented in an inactive pose, seated in this case, and in the background rather than the foreground of the image.

Each of these many images reflects the way gender roles were polarized by war rhetoric. They reflect important debates about American foreign policy goals, woven together with perceptions about what it meant to be masculine or feminine in wartime. The dominant gender ideology clearly presented true men as actively pro-war, motivated at least in part by the need to protect US women. Men were, or should be, the fighters and if they were not then they were not worth much as men. Women were primarily to be protected, whether from the Spanish, the Germans, or the war itself. Anti-war advocates fought an uphill battle against this attitude, and compensated in part by presenting anti-war men as the true defenders of vulnerable women. Woman suffragists, meanwhile, also found it expedient to incorporate traditional gender expectations by ridiculing men who did not live up to the masculine ideal. As this visual conversation indicates, none of the groups directly challenged the established gender roles and in fact may have solidified them. 


[1]This attitude is found in Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” McClure's Magazine 12 (February, 1899) and in many statements by Theodore Roosevelt. For more information on this topic see Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).


[3]Richard E.Welch, Jr, Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979) is a good summary of the different anti-imperialist groups and their impact.

[4]For more detail on the CPI, see Chapter I, “Advertising the Great War,” in Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 11-35 and James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words That Won the War (NY: Russell & Russell, 1968). Also see Creel’s version of events in George Creel, How We Advertised America (NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1920).

[5]Mock and Larson, Words That Won the War, 4.

[6]Jackall and Hirota, “Advertising the Great War,”13-15.

[7]Quoted in Brett Gary, The Nervous Liberals (NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), 19.

[8]Jackall and Hirota, “Advertising the Great War,” 14, 20.

[9]See Peter Paret, Beth Irwin Lewis, and Paul Paret, Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

[10]For more on this see Robert David Johnson, The Peace Progressives and American Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[11]Frederick Remington, “Spaniards Search Women on American Steamers,” New York Journal (1898); “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish American War,” http://www.pbs.org/crucible/frames/_resources.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[12]Fred Spear, “Enlist” (1915), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awpnp6/worldwars.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[13]Artist Unknown, “The Cuban Mother” New York Journal (1898); “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish American War,” http://www.pbs.org/crucible/frames/_resources.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[14]Alonzo E. Fonniger, “The Greatest Mother in the World” (1918), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/wwiposquery.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[15]Paret, Lewis, and Paret, Persuasive Images, 60.

[16]Artist Unknown, “Let Go of Him, McKinley!” New York Journal (1898), “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish American War,” http://www.pbs.org/crucible/frames/_resources.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[17]Schneck, “It’s Up to You” (1917), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awpnp6/worldwars.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[18]Henry Raleigh, “Halt the Hun!” (1918), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/wwiposquery.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[19]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 369.

[20]See H.L. Mencken, Chapter 11: “American Slang,” The American Language (1921), www.bartleby.com

[21]Laura Brey, “On Which Side of the Window Are You?” (1917), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/wwiposquery.html (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[22]Paret, Lewis, and Paret, Persuasive Images, 56.

[23]Quoted in Jackall and Hirota, “Advertising the Great War,” 25.

[24]Horace Taylor, “Republicanism Down to Date,” The Verdict (25 September, 1899); “McKinley and Political Cartoons,” Ohio State University

,http://history.osu.edu/projects/USCartoons/Verdict/HT/25Sept1899.htm (accessed 22 February, 2006).

[25]Henry Glintenkamp,Conscription,” The Masses (August, 1917); “Henry J. Glintenkamp,” Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/glint/ (accessed 25 March, 2006). See also “Images of American Radicalism: Cover Illustrations from the Masses 1913-1917,” Michigan State University, http://www.lib.msu.edu/coll/main/spec_col/radicalism/exhibits/masses/.

[26]H.R. Hopps, “Destroy this Mad Brute” (1917), “World War I and World War II Posters,” Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/wwiposquery.html (accessed 22 February, 2006). This menacing figure appeared in advertisements, posters, and cartoons. These images predate the first King Kong movie (1933) by fifteen years and may very well have been the inspiration for it. It is likely that some of the fascination with dangerous gorillas derived from the Tarzan of the Apes series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published in 1912 and first made into a movie in 1918.

[27]M.A. Kempf, “Come On In, America, the Blood’s Fine,” The Masses (June, 1917); “Max Eastman,” Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jeastman.htm (accessed 25 March, 2006).

[28]Charles Dana Gibson, “Men Wanted,” Life 70:1813 (26 July, 1917), 137.

[29]Eloise Valiant, “–But He Can Fight,” Maryland Suffrage News (May, 1915), 8.