In this poster, a young boy wearing overalls bearing the US Food Administration seal, carries a wooden crate of vegetables. He looks on at the older man in the center, whose haircut brings to mind George Washington, and who carries a larger basket of produce. At the far right, a young man carries a sheaf of wheat on his shoulder. All are marching in step, a stylized cornfield and a brilliant blue sky behind them. "Spirit of '18," the poster reads at the top. Below, it says, "The World Cry Food - Keep the Home Garden Going," with the United States Food Administration title and seal at the bottom.
Although it doesn't seem like it on the surface, this poster references the American Revolution. It is based on a very famous image which would have been familiar to Americans at the time. Painted by Archibald MacNeil Willard in 1875 for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the painting which became known as "Spirit of '76" was revealed to little critical acclaim, but great popularity among ordinary people. Willard reproduced it several times. The original was enormous - eight feet by ten feet.
You can see how closely William McKee mirrored the work of Archibald Willard - the three figures in both images are nearly identical - a young boy, an elderly man, and a young man, although in the World War I poster the young man is considerably younger and more Adonis-looking than Willard's figure. The figures represent the three generations - youth, adulthood, and old age, as well as the breadth of men participating in the American Revolution and World War I. During the Revolutionary War, musicians were usually boys too young and men too old to enlist as regular soldiers. Old men and young boys were also "drafted" during the First World War for home front duties, including gardening and farm labor.
In both images, the figures are marching forward, bringing victory behind them.
Archibald Willard died on October 11, 1918, exactly one month short of the end of World War I. So it is possible he saw his work replicated in this poster. "Spirit of '76" was his most popular and enduring work, but it did not bring fame or fortune.
For other Americans who saw the "Spirit of '18" poster, it surely would have instantly brought to mind the "Spirit of '76," and the sacrifices and courage of the American Revolution, inspiring similar levels of patriotism and sacrifice by Progressive Era Americans during the First World War to "do their bit" and contribute to the war effort through war gardens.