Historians and TV pundits alike have a ready answer as to what made the Greatest Generation great: It was a sense of shared plight and sacrifice, which the nation mobilized to wage war and then built its modern economy.
But a great sense of that sense of common purpose came about because of one thing everyone needed, equally: food. Whether it was what people ate, how they ate, or when, the government, during both World Wars, actively sought to get people to act a certain way with patriotic posters that shouted grand messages.
Graphic designer Cory Bernat has assembled over 100 of those posters, gathered from the National Agricultural Library, into a fascinating online exhibit. Bernat's meaty annotations illustrate how food posters from each decade, from 1900 to 1950, took up slightly different goals.
As she tells Smithsonian.com:
What kind of messages about food was the government sending to the American public through these posters?
Bernat: Actually, as a professor pointed out to me, most of them are not really about food?they're about behavior modification. Both times, with both wars, the government needed the public to modify their behavior for the national good. (And today, that's exactly what Michelle Obama is trying to get people to do: change their behavior to curb childhood obesity.) As the Food Administration's publications director put it to state officials back in 1917: "All you gentlemen have to do is induce the American people to change their ways of living!" He's saying it with irony, of course, because that's a very hard task.
Here's a sample of some of the most interesting posters from the show, which you can view in full here.
Up top: A poster from WWI that tried to get Americans at home to save wheat--which was being produced in America and sent abroad to support the war effort.
And here, another poster from WWI urging the same message, from another angle. Posters often encouraged women to save food by canning, while cutting down on wheat--elevating the simplest household tasks to an act of heroism:
Even something as simple as not wasting food--and eating everything you had--took on a patriotic cast:
This poster is actually a brilliant infographic, showing exactly what sorts of sacrifices in wheat consumption were required to feed the war effort:
Meanwhile, between wars, priorities changed. One big goal was to encourage farm modernization:
Another was a huge government program--still in place today--that paid farmers not to farm their land, so as to keep food prices high enough enough to keep farmer's in business. Many were leery of the plan, and didn't trust that it would work for everyone. This poster was meant to sooth concerns about food shortages:
Be sure to check out the entire exhibition--which details how women were made to feel central in the war effort--here.