U.S. Labor Department WWI Posters

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

[The entire portion of the history of the U.S. Department of Labor in WWI for this blog post was taken directly, with some changes, from the official History of the Department of Labor, 1913-1988, written by Judson MacLaury, Departmental Historian, viewed at https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/dolchp01]

One of the least-known aspects of World War I is the important role of the U.S. Department of Labor in the promotion of wartime work production through propaganda. A hallmark of Progressive Era politics and element in the growth of the type of Americanism trademarked later in WWII, the Labor Department posters essentially worked to build trust in the American government and its policies. The posters would—using various phrasing and slogans—use guilt, patriotism, competition, call to duty, and appeal to cultural religious ideals to spur the work force to produce extraordinary output to support the Allies. Here is some official historical background on the Labor Department’s role in WWI to help understand how this came to be.

The U.S. Department of Labor was signed into law as an act on March 4, 1913, by President William Howard Taft. A federal department for labor was the direct result of over fifty years campaigning by organized labor for representation within the Presidential Cabinet. The department was an indirect product of the Progressive Era, which promoted the achievement of better working conditions for labor, conservation of natural resources, and other developments based on Progressive ideologies.

The main purpose for the Department of Labor was “to foster, promote and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” The new department was formed from four pre-existing bureaus of the old Department of Commerce and Labor, which were the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Naturalization, and Children’s Bureau. New President Woodrow Wilson’s appointee as the first Secretary of Labor was William B. Wilson, the Secretary-Treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America and a later Congressman.

With the entry of the U.S. into World War I on April 5, 1917, adequate war production became a national necessity and labor questions assumed paramount importance. Adding to the crisis atmosphere, labor-management conflicts became widespread as labor shortages and swelling production needs placed organized labor in a strong bargaining position. The insurance of labor peace and adequate production became major national wartime goals.

After four years in existence, the Department of Labor was prepared to contribute its share to the war effort. The Bureau of Immigration, in cooperation with several other agencies, took the first step for the U.S. in the war. When it was obvious that war was imminent, Secretary Wilson directed the Bureau to make plans to take custody of the crews of German ships lying in U.S. waters. As soon as the Secretary received word early in the morning of April 5 that the Congress had passed a declaration of war, he sent to the appropriate ports the prearranged message “Proceed instantly”. Immediately the German crews were rounded up without incident and dispatched to internment camps.

The Department’s role quickly evolved to assuming the major responsibility for implementing the nation’s war labor policies and programs. Secretary Wilson persuaded the President to appoint a mediation commission to investigate labor problems and make recommendations. After a brief survey of conditions, the mediation commission recommended adoption of the following key elements of a national war labor policy: elimination of war profiteering; recognition of the right of workers to bargain collectively; establishment of machinery to adjust grievances, and; sanctioning of the 8-hour day with overtime pay for any time worked beyond 8 hours.

To implement this policy, a War Labor Administration (WLA) was set up that put the Secretary of Labor in charge of most of the government’s war labor programs. The principal component was the War Labor Board established in April 1918. Composed equally of distinguished members from industry and organized labor, the Board advised the Secretary and adjudicated labor disputes not resolved by the conciliation service. This policy was dubbed the Magna Carta of labor by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. Another important component of the WLA was the War Labor Policies Board, headed by Felix Frankfurter. This Board worked with government contract agencies to formulate consistent policies on wages, hours, working conditions, and so on. The Board helped eliminate organizational confusion that was impeding the war effort. The Department also created the U.S. Employment Service, to originally help place people with employment opportunities prior to 1917.

It is important to realize what the Labor Department propaganda posters represented to the average American laborer during WWI. American citizens were barraged from propaganda—particularly posters—outlining a sense of what was “American.” It did so to such a degree that to disagree in public with a particular official view or sentiment of American patriotism during the war might get you reported by your neighbors to government officials for sedition. State councils of defense—including the North Carolina Council of Defense—coordinated or supported investigations of locals in every county with federal authorities, for such things as not wanting to fly American flags or say the Pledge of Allegiance at a public event. The American Red Cross, Liberty Loan campaign drives, U.S. military branches, U.S. Food Administration, and other organizations hammered the American consciousness with demands and calls of duty, funding requests to beat the German “monster,” and calls to patriotism to save your family.

All of these other types of posters were in the general public—in post offices, grocery stores, public buildings, and schools—and used extreme graphics to capture the imagination. Issued by through the department’s U.S. Employment Service, the Labor Department posters used short phrases, ideas, and slogans, on single-toned posters with black letters to convey messages within the workplace. The Labor Department posters were printed on thin white, green, blue, pink, and other colored cheap paper in 11” x 17” size, intended to be hung up in businesses, factories, and other workspaces on walls and bulletin boards to remind employees of their duties as laborers. The posters were never intended to last long, and the paper they were printed on turns brittle very easily. Few of these posters are believed to have survived from WWI to the present time.

The posters equate to a political campaign in the focus on the text over the design for the period. They would be printed from 1917 to 1922. Towards the end of the war, the posters changed in tone from support of the war to support of returning veterans, admonitions to employers and employees to make room for jobs for returning service individuals, and encouraging the purchasing of new homes by laborers and returning veterans to spur the economy. They also encouraged trust in the federal government, in such a manner that would be one of the earliest indicators of the growth of the federal government’s power and support from the public that was most clearly exerted in the Great Depression and WWII.  

A rare set of over 55 of these Labor Department--most collected by the State Archives of North Carolina during and immediately after WWI--are available online to view in the WWI digital collection on North Carolina Digital Collections (NCDC). Of particular interest are a little-used or known set of 26 of these posters, that for 100 years has been stored in the North Carolina Council of Defense Records in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection.