Work, Fight, Give
War is about loss. Lives, communities and peace can all be obliterated, leaving behind tatters and tears. World War II saw more devastation and lives lost than any previous war, and the memory of the event largely centers on destruction and pain. But a new exhibition at the Wilbur D. May Museum challenges that idea and offers an uplifting perspective of the watershed event in our nation’s history as it highlights the helpers.
“The exhibit parallels to our modern times,” said assistant curator Samantha Szesciorka. “It’s inspiring because it speaks to these universal themes of humanity, of coming together. We see that now, and we saw that then.”
Work, Fight, Give is a collection of posters that were made to mobilize regular citizens to donate money, time and clothing to relief causes that aided postwar efforts. The posters aimed at the heart of America and were created by the top artists and illustrators of the day. When fighting on foreign battlefronts subsided and armies moved on, those living in the war zones were left to pick up the pieces. Many at home wondered how they could aid those affected, and the posters helped point their charity in the right direction.
The posters were like an ad campaign and a GoFundMe campaign rolled into one, alerting the public to different needs in various nations, and calling those who saw them to action. They hung in rural and urban communities across the nation. Hundreds of relief organizations used the medium as a way to paint a different picture of the war. Instead of news of chaos and calamity, they focused on how to make things better.
Emotional pleas like, “From Want of Food—Never From Want of Courage. Give! Greece needs your help now!” drew Americans in and persuaded them to give to countries like Russia, Germany and the Philippines. The calls to action highlighted many organizations that were under the umbrella of the War Relief Fund and helped them collectively raise millions in assistance.
Szesciorka said wars are political, but that when real people see suffering, human nature drives the desire to somehow assist, regardless of the politics or location.
“There were these tragic stories coming in about communities torn apart, children left without parents, refugees, people without food,” she said. “These stories really affected Americans who heard about them and they wanted to do something to help. And we still see that today. Americans have an amazing ability to come together and help when needed.”
Szesciorka spent her Labor Day setting up the show and said all the posters are powerful in their own way. Yet, a couple made an instant impression on her.
“There’s one that says, ’America, Speed Up,’ and it has Uncle Sam riding on a horse with the swastika in flames,” she said. “That is dramatic. Then, the other poster was of a child looking very neglected, and it’s about taking in refugees. Given the current political climate, those two posters stood out to me because I thought, ’My gosh, those are sort of the same themes we’re seeing today.’ They could be hung now and be just as topical.”
In addition to the 40 posters, the exhibit also contains pamphlets, brochures, a collection box, stamps and more objects that put relief efforts at the forefront. The namesake of the museum, Wilbur May, fought in both World War I and II, so organizers hoped the show would also honor his service.