Nursing History in Posters
For the past century, images of nurses were used in public health initiatives, wartime propaganda and cigarette advertising
Posters have punch. They have color. And, where they depict nurses and nursing, they provide an important historical record of the many changes that have taken place since Florence Nightingale first tried to bring respect to a once-disreputable profession.
That record spans many different languages, styles and purposes. Some posters are samples of wartime propaganda while others treat nurses as sex objects or glorified spokesmodels. Together, these images demonstrate, in one way or another, how nursing was perceived in a given era, both by outsiders and practitioners.
Although eventually overshadowed by radio, TV and the Internet, posters have been a vital form of communication since the printing press first made it possible to mass-produce them. Even today, they are still widely used for advertising, recruitment and public service announcements. Clever graphic design and striking images can deliver a wallop that a thousand words couldn’t convey.
Posters are also a highly collectible art form. Many posters were created by well-known professional artists like Gordon Grant, Howard Chandler Christy and Norman Rockwell. Today, writers like Suzanne Gordon also sometimes turn their messages into posters.
Posters form part of a country’s cultural heritage, often reprinted in academic books and hung in museums. Here in the United States, copies of the best and most significant posters reside in the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
For more than half a century, wars and military recruitment were a rich source of poster art. Governments and military forces hired prestigious painters and illustrators to help recruit more personnel and persuade the folks back home to buy war bonds or just maintain the proper patriotic spirit.
Military nurses are often in short supply in wartime. During many of the major wars of the last century, striking poster images of heroic nurses inspired young women to volunteer. One example from World War I, now part of the Smithsonian collection, is the 1918 poster “The Comforter,” by Gordon Grant. The poster depicts a nurse on the front lines, caring for an injured soldier. It captures the generous spirit of nursing while conveying — in carefully romanticized fashion — the real dangers wartime nurses sometimes face.