Scanning Around With Gene: When Printers Went to War

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Memorial Day is the United States holiday meant to honor soldiers killed in war. Last May 29, while looking at the newspaper inserts suggesting that the way to honor our war dead is to shop, I started thinking about how isolated we’ve become from the impacts of war. The people dying in Iraq are just as dead as those who died during World War II, only this time we Americans are not being asked to make sacrifices (unless you count being hated by the rest of the world). So there are no daily reminders of the consequences of war, no paper or ink shortages, no rationing, no community efforts to round up scrap metal for gun making — and no visible support for war from the business community. Just our President telling us over and over again about the threat of “the terrorists,” and our usual arrogance toward people and places we don’t fully understand. I wondered if someday future generations will look at “Terrorist Day” as a great time to buy a new car or that extra-large stainless steel grill.

Indifference and ignorance weren’t always the case, of course, and the graphic arts industry was once a vital supplier of war goods and a key player in the propaganda fueling public support of war. I know this because I used Memorial Day as an excuse to look through a decade’s worth of Graphic Arts Monthly magazines. These issues, dated from 1941 to 1950, show just how involved everyone was in the war effort and what a huge impact the war had on industry. It would be nearly impossible, it seems, to be indifferent about war in those days.

Figure 1. The Graphic Arts Monthly has always been one of the leading printing industry publications. During the World War II years, the magazine often ran patriotic covers and other material, including a series of covers reflecting a “V for Victory” theme. These examples are all from 1942.

It’s a little sad to me that our industry no longer involves itself in the issues of the day, preferring instead to use our powerful tools almost exclusively for profit. In America, anyway, the old saying about “the power of the press” is not nearly as relevant as it once was, and most people would no longer agree with Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle when he said in 1857 that “the three great elements of modern civilization are gunpowder, printing, and the Protestant religion.” During World War II, however, that statement rang true.

Figure 2. In showing support for the war, press manufacturer Chandler & Price ran this ad highlighting the virtues of truth. The copy goes on to say: “Truly truth is mankind’s door to freedom — the printing press the key to that door.”

The printing press was indeed a weapon of war, used as masterfully by Hitler’s propaganda machine as it was by small resistance movements in towns throughout the world. I have a very romantic notion of secret printing runs taking place in the middle of the night, of soldiers marching into town to confiscate printing presses, and of printers scrounging bits of mismatched metal type to produce provocative handbills.

Figure 3. Citing the French underground resistance movement, Chandler & Price said in this ad that “the printing press, since its origin, has been the one indestructible weapon in man’s struggle for freedom.”

Shifting Manufacturing Resources
Not only were the presses and metal type of the day important communication vehicles, but the companies that manufactured graphic arts machinery and supplies were vital elements in the conversion of industry to the war effort. In America, the major machinery manufacturers turned over most, if not all, of their manufacturing capacity to weapons or other needed goods to supply the war effort.

Figure 4. In 1941 the Craftsman Corporation advocated buying quickly, before supplies ran short. Indeed, it appears from other articles in Graphic Arts Monthly that many printers did upgrade just before the United States joined the war effort.

Printing businesses back at home were advised to “make it last” and given lots of information about proper oiling and maintenance of existing equipment, for it was clear there would be no new printing presses delivered for quite some time.

Figure 5. Metal, rubber and other resources were in short supply during World war II, so many ads and editorials were focused on conservation and the need for sacrifices among business owners. Many companies, such as the Brackett Stripping Machine Company, used advertising space to explain why it would be hard to buy new equipment or parts for older equipment.

The graphic arts industry had to learn to get along not just without new machinery, but without metal for type casting, paper and ink for printing, and other goods. Fiber board for packaging was particularly hard to come by, so many goods were shipped in re-usable containers.

Figure 6. In this 1942 Graphic Arts Monthly editorial, R. Randolph Karch tries to dispel the idea that printing is wasteful and should be curtailed whenever possible to save resources. By using racist cartoon images, he hoped to shift blame to the enemies, even though he admits in the text that the printing industry is, indeed, unnecessarily wasteful. If racism were a necessary component of national pride, maybe we’d be better off without it.

Government regulations required that printers stock only 90 days’ worth of materials, that old type galleys be re-melted, that presses and other equipment not in service be scrapped for re-use, that paper not contain as much bleach or other whitening agents, and more.

Figure 7. One consequence of war was a shortage of the chlorine used to bleach paper to a bright white. In the ad that accompanies the illustration (top) from Champion Paper, the copy says “Chlorine is much less necessary for bleaching pulp than for war essentials to bleach the bones of dictators.” Gilbert Paper took a slightly less dramatic stance (bottom) in explaining why it was simplifying paper lines.

Of course, every industry pitched in during those days, and the tone of most advertising was that of “we’re all doing our part,” even if it meant going without and a substantial slowing of business. The good news for printers was that the United States government was dramatically expanding its printing needs (estimated at $20 million in 1942). The bad news was that many business uses for printing dropped dramatically during the war years as everyone focused on essentials.

Figure 8. Nolan Machinery (top) was a major supplier of proofing devices and other printing equipment. During the war years the company switched to manufacturing items for the Army, and used its advertising space to post strong, often racist political messages. A racist pro-war poster from RCA (bottom) was featured in a 1942 article highlighting the war-related work of printers. Not all aspects of national unity are desirable — sometimes enemies are reduced to offensive stereotypes.

At the same time that these rules and regulations were limiting printers’ access to supplies, the graphic arts industry was encouraged to use the power of its presses to produce posters and other materials supporting the war. In one printing newsletter, the editor said, “You can make your printed promotions a slap in Hitler’s face by showing a defiant and constructive picture of America at work to win the war.” And an editorial in Graphic Arts Monthly of May 1942 suggested that “there should be no minimization of the part played by the graphic arts in finally beating the Axis powers to their needs.”

One way the industry did this was by promoting the purchase of war bonds, a government-sponsored effort to raise much-needed cash by selling securities directly to the American public. By the end of the war, over $185 billion worth of war bonds were sold, promoted almost exclusively through donated advertising. Printers supplied the stock cuts and appropriate artwork, often without charge, that local advertisers, newspapers, and other publishers used to promote the sale of war bonds.

Figure 9. One check on marketing priorities is to look at what the stock photo and clip-art companies are offering up. During war years most of them promoted the availability of patriotic and pro-military imagery.

In 1942, there was even an effort by the printing industry to raise $400,000 by having each of the 40,000 printing establishments in the United States send in $10. The money was to be used to purchase two bomber planes for the government, which would be named by the printers who contributed. The effort fell short, however, and no “Gutenberg Bombers” were deployed. I’m not sure how the printing industry in America dealt with the irony that most major printing developments had taken place in Germany, but I can say that “buying American” was a popular theme in industry advertising at the time. You didn’t see a lot of ads for Heidelberg presses in 1942.

Figure 10. H.B. Rouse & Company makes a vague connection in this ad between military might and the effectiveness of its band saws, despite no direct connection. Every company wanted to appear supportive of the war effort.

Figure 11. A cross hair may seem like an odd way to promote Christmas and Thanksgiving paper stock, but it just shows how closely associated with the war effort everyone wanted to be.

And though American manufacturers didn’t make as much profit selling presses and supplies to the United States military as they would to the printing industry, there was a strong market for equipment as field printing plants were set up around the globe and on Navy ships. Returning military printers would, in fact, become a primary pool for labor after the war as the printing industry returned to normal.

Figure 12. Press manufacturer Chandler & Price explained in its ad (above) that the shortage of new presses was due to large orders from the military to equip ships and field operations. And American Writing Paper Corporation (bottom) promoted its papers’ durability through battlefield references.

Were Times Really that Different Then?
World War II may have been an exception in the way it brought nations together (and split some apart). And in the 1940s print played a much more important role in vital communications than it does today. But it’s still hard to imagine a situation today where printing, let alone any industry, would get involved in political or social issues, fearful of being politically incorrect. (I did find one Web site where graphic designers can contribute anti-war artwork.)

The printing presses of all nations are still a potential tool for social and political change. But for an industry to make a difference, there has to be passion on the part of the owners and workers. In America, the destruction of printing unions, the consolidation of printing businesses, and the general lack of guts on the part of industry leaders has resulted in a bland and ineffective industry. The printing press is no longer looked at as a vehicle for free speech, but as an expensive manufacturing unit that must be kept busy regardless of the political or artistic consequences.

I’m not sure what it will take to get Americans united in their attitudes toward the war in Iraq, but I don’t think it will be due to any effort on the part of the graphic arts industry.

I dream of the day when more young people figure out that new technology, like text messaging and podcasts, can be a catalyst for social change, just as the printing press once was. I just hope it happens before the death count in Iraq gets much higher.

Gene left 11 images on the scanning room floor. To see these outtakes, go to page 2.

Posted on: July 14, 2006

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

11 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: When Printers Went to War

  1. Some of this reminds me of Catch-22. Few would argue the necessity to fight World War II., though that war, like the current conflict, highlights the breakdown of constructive policy and long-term thinking in foreign policy. The article has a subtext of business being business, in war as in peace. I love this stuff.

  2. Are you real? Ever heard of the blogosphere? Never gotten an anti-war email? Electronic publishing is real, and now so influential that it is covered on 24 hours news channels and commercial (mainstream) media.

    A number of these blogs and activist websites (say have prolific graphics threads. Graphics created by pro’s, design and art students, and just regular people.

    I also would like to point out that recently 7 designers refused in protest to attend the National Design Awards Gala hosted by Laura Bush at the White House.


    I must say, you almost had me there while you were discussing the “print” industry and the lack of political motivation. . .but when you said:

    “I dream of the day when more young people figure out that new technology, like text messaging and podcasts, can be a catalyst for social change, just as the printing press once was. “

    My jaw hit the floor. And let me tell you — it’s not just young people. It’s young, boomers, retirees, etc. . .using the web to publish. The beauty of the internet is that you don’t NEED expensive equipment to publish, anyone can do it.

    Maybe the printing industry is no longer involved politically, because it no longer needs to be. The internet can do much that it once did — and more.

  3. Ann is right–I did not give fair consideration to the many strong voices that are out there trying to stimulate change. And while I agree that these new media outlets can be very powerful, I’m not sure if they will ever replace the sort of civil disobedience that helped this nation overcome segregation or the Vietnam War.

    If opposition isn’t making the news on a regular basis, I don’t think it is very effective. Bloggers typically are talking to like-minded people, so while this can help build momentum, it will never garner the sort of attention that a sit-in or massive ralley in Washington does. At least not yet!

    I applaud everyone who is making their viewpoint known and who are trying to build support. No effort is minor in this regard and I apologize for not recognizing the many voices that are out there.

    –Gene Gable

  4. First of all, Great article. I for one, love those old War Bonds and “Loose Lips sink Ships” posters.

    It’s no secret that our nation is polarizing; many nations are polarizing. As liberals become more liberal, conservatives become more conservative, and vice versa. And I think most would agree that overall, the Graphic Design industry is dominated by liberal thought. In the last few years, in design books and publications, I’ve seen a lot (I’d say excessive) Anti-Bush rhetoric, nothing Pro-Bush, and very little “Support our Troops” design work. Our industry has become political.

    In 1941 the nation united against a common enemy. Today, many see the enemy as the US Government, specifically the Bush Administration. The loudest critics are liberal. And with an industry so dominated by liberal thinking, speaking out in favor of the war would be occupational suicide. And because the major cities in the US are also the biggest design hubs, speaking in favor of the war not only alienates you from potential employers, it also alienates you from potential clients.

    Today, the Web is King. It’s cheap and unrestrictive, which means it’s big, overwhelming, and diluted with content. Informative? Of course! But why print and pay for a poster when you can multiply the content and distribution exponentially for little-to-no cost.

    You can get your pro-war pro-Bush, anti-war anti-Bush information anywhere you’d like; at your desktop, your laptop, your palm pilot, or your cellphone, so the information and support of either side of the issue is still there, but it will never be as classic, catching, or unifying as the posters of the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately, I think those days are long gone.

    The design community does come together for certain political/social causes – and that is to be commended – but I can’t forsee supporting a war ever again being one of them.

  5. I was born in 1929 so I remember only too well the war years. We were a simpler nation then and a simpler people. I do not know if that is good or bad but I cannot imagine telling my grandchildren that there is a curfew, that there are no ration stamps left for butter or meat or “no” to almost anything for that matter. I now live outside the US because I like the simple way of life where I no longer have to own a car; I walk to the store and go to bed early to conserve energy. I did not approve of this war but now that we are in it, I pray we win it because if we don’t the entire world will be a nasty place in which to live. I guess I feel the way I do because I watched daily as Hitler marched across Europe. I remember exactly where I was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I wonder how many of us are really committed to keep 911 from ever happening again.

  6. I enjoyed reviewing the old war posters…I am in the Navy (with a prior enlisted background as a Marine). I probably have a much different perspective from most readers of this forum. What strikes me most is not only the business aspect of promoting the war, but the complete political desegregation—absolutely no mention of the President nor of the politics. The focus is on the enemy. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the focus on the enemy is a kaleidoscope with the unity of effort being directed in many directions with little positive effect.

  7. Even though I found the poster interesting I found myself disappointed. I feel it takes more guts to support the war. Yes, we hate war also, but sometimes it is necessary! Please don’t call me uninformed, stupid, racist, uneducated, hillbilly, right-winged or religous. I am informed, have family over there, educated and sadden with each death. I feel we need to give this war a 100% or get out today! Our jelly fish representives that want a non-binding crap should get a backbone. I would like to see a poster on Get the job done and come home! Of course you will not see this–it would be all anti Bush administration.

  8. I wonder how many out there know just how many democratic Muslim governments there are in the Near East? If my memory serves me correctly there are only two – Turkey and Egypt (sleightly). Now there is a chance for three – Iraq. In the Western world you have to look hard NOT to find a free democrtic government and society – and we gripe about the war! Shame on us!

  9. Very interesting take. Thanks for the anti-war designers link too.

  10. Many of the images depicted in the ads are caricatures of Hitler, Stalin, and Hirohito. I do not see how these images could be construed as “racist”, any more than a picture of Saddam Hussein would be racist. Instead, they were specific symbols of the evils we were fighting. And guess what: we won that war. We helped free France, protect Britain, break the stranglehold of Nazism throughout Europe, etc. AND, we had a much better worldwide reputation than we do now. Perhaps if we were not so self-deprecating today, we might have already been finished in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and would have our reputation in tact.

  11. Like many writers who try to be objective and politically correct at the same time, the author is all over the map. Does the war in Iraq come anywhere close to comparing to WWII, the largest war in history? I don’t think so, so why make comparisons to WWII war efforts? Why does he think some war posters are racist simply because the Japanese military, many of the leaders of which were sentenced as war criminals after the war, are identified in them?

    If you want an accurate picture of Japanese war crimes, read “Through the Valley of the Kwai” by Ernest Gordon, Harper& Row, 1962. Library of Congress #62-11127. It’s not the book by Boulle the movie was based on. This is the real thing. pg. 74: “On one occasion a whole string of barges came floating downriver to our camp. Their cargo consisted of corpses-the bodies of prisoners from upcountry. They were no more than skeletons covered with skin.”

    The war in Iraq, as difficult as it is, is nowhere near as bad as WWII. But the article has an interesting collection of war posters and ads. War is generally the result of greed, ego, politics and propaganda. While some wars can’t be avoided (WWII), others can.

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