Media Review

Beans are Bullets & Of Course I Can: War Era Food Posters from the Collection of the National Agricultural Library

National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD
June 21, 2010–September 10, 2010

USDA South Building, Washington, DC
October 6, 2010–November 10, 2010


The exhibit Beans are Bullets & Of Course I Can examines the collections of food-related posters located in the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. The posters were produced between 1917 and 1944 by both government and local agencies to promote both voluntary and mandatory rationing of food during and between the world wars. The curator, Cory Bernat, produced two versions of the exhibit: one a traditional, graphic exhibit which can travel, and another expanded, online version. This review looks at the online version of the exhibit.

The exhibit is divided into six sections with an introduction. Interestingly, the curator also chose to include endnotes and a bibliography, something typically not possible within a more traditional exhibit format but in this case conveys the breath of the curator's research. Each section begins with a main text interspersed with quotes from period sources or well-known individuals. Each series of graphics, primarily from the collections of the National Agricultural Library, is presented as both thumbnails and larger-sized images so that all the text can be read and images seen up close.

The exhibit does an excellent job of portraying the design differences between World War I and World War II era posters. Many posters from World War I use a great deal of text to offer arguments for voluntary rationing, whereas posters from World War II include photographic-quality images with slogans, similar to what we expect from advertisements today. The fact that many posters were aimed at women is also a theme that is well explored in the exhibit. The posters linked women's domestic duties to men's contributions as soldiers during both wars, specifically telling women that their conservation of food was just as important to the war effort as participating in the battles. Though the gendered nature of the advertisements was raised, the issue of class is conspicuously missing in the analysis. Because of their lengthy format and sophisticated arguments, many of the World War I posters would have only been accessible to those who had a significant amount of education. Those who were poor or part of the large population of immigrants present in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century were not necessarily part of the audience for these ads.

Posters were also created during this period that asked farmers to increase production and not worry about prices. These advertisements linked farming with military service, promoting the idea that staying home to operate the family farm was as important as serving in the military. Interestingly, these posters aimed directly at farmers were not in large part produced by the USDA or any other government agency. Instead direct contact with farmers prior to 1922 was done through state agricultural colleges or farm extension offices. These local agencies produced wartime posters aimed at increasing farm production in their own particular area. Because they were locally produced, the messages in these farm posters vary significantly by region. It is also pointed out that many of the advertisements to farmers from World War II came from Purina Mills instead of the government. There were limited examples of those advertisements featured in the exhibit and not examined in detail.

During World War I, nationally recognized artists designed posters. These men and women worked for the Division of Pictorial Publicity within the Committee on Public Information and produced artistic images for national patriotic campaigns. During World War I these somber images relayed the seriousness of the war effort and the important part everyone played in the effort. By the time of World War II the soberness of images had been replaced with idealism and emotion.

Overall Beans are Bullets & Of Course I Can is an informative online exhibit that handles its subject matter extremely well. Though the posters make up the majority of the graphics displayed, photographs are interwoven throughout the sections. These period photos show how the posters were used inside public spaces or as part of shop displays. The photos illustrate how consumers would have seen and potentially interacted with the posters. The online exhibit does not fully exploit the possibilities of media on the internet, instead keeping to a very standard format for online exhibits by simply expanding graphic content and information through electronic means. None of the content seems to be aimed at children or young adults. Although the information presented and substantial graphic content has the potential to be ideal for use in the classroom, no resources for teachers were included on the website.

Stephanie A. T. Jacobe
Louis Berger Group, Inc.