Uncle Sam Wants You: Conserving a Collection of Wartime Posters for Chicago's Federal Reserve Bank

Beautiful women depicted as nurses and mothers personified the virtues of liberty and freedom. Children’s faces represented concern with protecting youth from foreign threats. Handsome soldiers were illustrated in both glorious victory and debilitating injury. These patriotic images, mass-printed on thousands of war bond posters, were meant to tug the heartstrings (and purse strings) of millions of Americans during World War I and World War II.
 
During the two World Wars, the United States Treasury issued bonds and stamps for public purchase to support the war effort. Artists were commissioned to create posters to propagate the purchase of these government-issued securities throughout the country. The posters’ images, triumphant yet delicate, also represented guilt, fear, and the ominous threat of war. 
 
Artists and printmaking specialists worked together to create posters using lithographic techniques for efficient mass distribution. By the end of World War I, there were more than 700 different circulating government-issued war posters. During World War II, there were over 200,000 different poster designs printed.
 
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (FRBC) owns a stunning collection of 44 war bond posters that were created in the 1910s and in the 1940s to encourage public support of American troops. This collection serves as a reminder of the Chicago Fed’s important part in coordinating the sale of war bonds. In recent months, these vintage posters were cared for by The Conservation Center in preparation for a special exhibition mounted on the occasion of the FRB’s centennial anniversary.

Jim Obst, Digital Services Lead of FRB Chicago’s Knowledge Center who manages the collection, explained: “Individuals and agents for companies could walk into the Chicago Fed and purchase war bonds. Throughout the district we serve, local organizations promoted sales of these unique government securities. So the posters constitute a visual reminder of the Chicago Fed’s important role in helping the U.S. win the First World War.”
 
The 12 Federal Reserve Banks around the country joined the war effort by competing amongst themselves to see who could sell the most bonds. The FRB of Chicago, a leading participant in that competition, amasses 44 war bond posters, including four that directly reference Chicago. The bank’s collection consists of designs by artists Joseph Pennell, Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler, and Norman Rockwell.

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Over the past nine decades, the posters aged and required conservation in order to fully display their historical significance. At some point over the years, there was an attempt to conserve the prints by laminating them to boards and covering them with a shellac-like sealant. The shellac unfortunately discolored and obscured the lithography. The posters were also not stored correctly or carefully, and many accumulated scratches, holes, and gouges. Some posters were framed, but the frames were also in poor condition. The Chicago Fed’s collection of war bond posters was in need of a unifying style of framing and some expert care.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago partnered with The Conservation Center to conserve and frame these historic artifacts. The process began with our paper conservator carefully removing the discolored shellac-like sealant with solvents. Then the lithographs were surface cleaned and areas of damage were compensated to remedy some problem areas of the posters. Completing the process was an application of a de-acidification spray. The non-aerosol spray gently neutralizes harmful acids while providing a lasting protective buffer against future acid problems, ensuring extended life of paper-based materials.

After conservation, they needed to be properly framed—a process just as important as the conservation itself. Our custom framing team worked in conjunction with Knowledge Center and picked out a black profile frame that is fitting of the period. The frame is simple, clean, and showcases each poster in the best possible light, in addition to providing a unified look to the entire collection. True Vue Conservation Clear glass—which effectively blocks up to 99% of UV light rays and protects against fading—was used to prolong the lifespan of the posters. Acid free, 100% cotton mats and mounts were placed on either side of the posters, along with archival corrugate backing. Since the posters were going to be on view in public spaces, security hangers were also supplied.
 
The conservation of the war bond poster collection coincides with The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s centennial, and The Conservation Center is thrilled to partake in the celebration.

“Now that the posters have been repaired and framed, they look fresh and appealing. And having one style of frame nicely unifies the posters as a collection,” said Obst. “In celebration of The Chicago Fed’s 100th anniversary this year, we also reproduced one of the posters in a huge format to display on the exterior of our building, along with our message this year, ‘A Century of Service.’ At the same time, the Chicago Fed’s Money Museum features several newly improved posters from the collection. These tell people that the Federal Reserve System has an established and permanent role in promoting the health of the nation’s economy.”

Installation shots: Jamie Hawthorne for The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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