Wartime Nursing Posters
How depictions of nurses shaped public sentiment towards war
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 respectability to a once disreputable profession.
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. Clever graphic design and striking images can deliver a wallop that a thousand words couldn’t convey.
During the first half of the 20th century, wars and military recruitment campaigns were a rich source of poster art featuring images of nursing. Governments and military organizations hired prestigious painters and illustrators to help recruit nurses, persuade the folks back home to buy war bonds, or just encourage the proper patriotic spirit.
Military nurses are often in short supply in wartime. During many of the major wars of the last century, poster images of heroic nurses sought to inspire young women to volunteer.
One example from WWI, now part of the Smithsonian collection, is the 1918 poster “The Comforter” (above, left) by Gordon Grant, which 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.
It would be hard to find a more glorified image of nursing than “The Spirit of America” (above, right), a 1919 recruitment poster for the American Red Cross. With its flag-waving young nurse in a diaphanous gown, her eyes lifted to heaven, this lithograph by Howard Chandler Christy is a prime example of how wartime poster art spurred viewers to action and fostered patriotism at the same time.