The National War Garden Commission, a private organization funded by timber magnate Charles Lathrop Pack, was one of the most prolific sources of wartime propaganda posters outside the federal government. One of the major proponents of civilian garden programs, even before the U.S. entered the First World War, the National War Garden Commission gave away free booklets on gardening, canning, and food preservation.
The above poster features a boy with a spade and straw hat climbing over a mound of dirt. In the lead are series of anthropomorphic vegetables, including a pumpkin carrying the American flag, and all appear to be yelling or screaming as they run down the hill. Reading "War Gardens Over the Top," and "The Seeds of Victory Insure the Fruits of Peace," the poster brings to mind the "boys" going "over the top" of the trenches in battle. This use of military language in propaganda posters was not uncommon, but this particular phrase likely did not have the full impact in the period that it does now. Today, we realize how horrific the charges of men "over the top" and across no-man's land between the trenches on the front really were. But in the period, it's likely people had only sanitized newspaper articles and perhaps a propagandized newsreel or two to give them a frame of reference for the term.
In this second poster, which also reads "The Seeds of Victory Insure the Fruits of Peace," our military allusions are a little more innocent. Here our same overall-ed and straw-hatted boy marches in a parade, hoe over his shoulder, accompanied by more anthropomorphized vegetables. These vegetables look less than thrilled to be marching, but the sentiment is the same.
Both posters were published in 1919, technically AFTER the war was over. But as with most wars, the end of conflict does not mean that everything goes back to normal. There were numerous attempts by a number of organizations, including the federal government, to get Americans to continue to conform to wartime measures, including voluntary rationing and war gardens, which were termed victory gardens after the cessation of hostilities, well in to 1919 and even 1920. Here, the National War Garden Commission makes the argument that the "seeds of victory insure the fruits of peace," meaning that by continuing to plant vegetable gardens and free up domestic food supply for shipment overseas, Americans could help stabilize and rebuild Europe in the wake of the war.
Illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright, primarily known as a children's book illustrator, the posters have a luminous clarity, even if Enright was not particularly good at giving vegetables convincing facial expressions.
Lots of folks are starting year two of pandemic gardens - are you one of them? I am! Raised beds are going in this year and I already have my seeds and a plan.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.
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