In an election season, visual media like lawn signs and Facebook advertisements inundate us with messages about various candidates, issues, and political parties. But even before suburban lawns and the internet, another form of visual media, posters, displayed similar messages. Florence B. Helzel writes that the purpose of posters was “to stimulate public opinions and to motivate involvement in specific causes.”[i] While this does not seem particularly innovative, she claims that posters were specifically important before “the recent revolutionary technological advances in mass communication,” which weakened the effect of a poster.[ii] Visual media can be used for two main purposes: to encourage action or to dispense information. The three posters shown here, which span the years 1917-1944, cover both of these categories. They are very different from one another, both in how they look and in their purpose, but they provide a snapshot of different issues that were important to the Jews of New York during those years.
The first poster in chronological order (Jewish Relief Campaign, 2008.046), from 1917, was meant to encourage American Jews to give donations to the Jewish Relief Campaign. This poster was made by Burke, Johnstone Studios and printed by Sackett & Wilhelms Corp. in Brooklyn in the heart of World War I. Although the war began in Europe in 1914, the United States did not enter until the spring of 1917, when the war continued to drag on violently. This poster calls for American Jews to donate as a way to help their fellow Jews in Europe. It portrays the American Jewish community as a woman holding a bountiful tray of food, while European Jews are destitute and begging for help. Very little is known about the Jewish Relief Campaign – it is assumed to have been run by the Jewish Relief Committee, one of the groups that later helped found the American Joint Distribution Committee. This poster is visually striking, drawing a sharp contrast between the wealth of American Jewry and those in trouble overseas.
The next poster (Pauline Dolitsky, 1991.079), from 1918, is meant to relay a completely different message. This poster announces the appointment of Pauline Dolitsky as president of the Women’s League of Yeshiva University. As World War I was ending, Yeshiva University was taking care of internal politics. Of course, it was not yet known as Yeshiva University; Yeshiva College was only founded in 1928. In 1918, the institution existed only as Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, a rabbinical seminary on the Lower East Side. Dr. Bernard Revel was appointed as the first president only three years earlier, in 1915, and it was under his leadership that MTA and the graduate school of Jewish Studies, later to be named for him, were established. Although they were made around the same time, this poster is very different from the one made by the Jewish Relief Campaign. Firstly, its only purpose is to be informational, as a way to let people know about a decision that was made by this women’s group. Secondly, the style is more ornate and the poster provides much more background information. This poster was not meant for any person walking down the street. It was meant to share information with those who were already interested in hearing about the subject. On the other hand, its lavish detail is meant to impress upon the viewer the importance of the information being provided. While most of us do not ever think about the presidents of women’s leagues in the early 1900s, this poster gives us a glimpse of a very specific piece of history.
The last poster (Frankenthaler, 2001.029) combines aspects of the first two. A campaign poster for George Frankenthaler, it dates from 1944, at the end of World War II. Similar to the first poster, it endorses an action; instead of requesting for viewers to “Share,” it asks viewers to “Vote.” In the first poster, however, the cause is more general, while here the cause is specifically political, and more similar to that of the second poster. George Frankenthaler was a Jewish New Yorker who ran for New York Supreme Court.[iii] He did not leave much of a historical footprint, although he came from a prominent political family. The Kentucky New Era reports that in 1948 he was caught up in a political scandal when corrupt New York politicians tried to buy votes in the election for Surrogate’s Court, an election in which Frankenthaler was the Republican candidate.[iv] This last poster is clearly the most modern of all three. With its minimalism and clear message, I would not be surprised to see something similar in a current campaign.
Images vie for our attention wherever we go, but we often do not pay them very much attention. Posters in particular seem quite temporary and unimportant, but nothing could be more important for a student of history than posters from his chosen time period. As we slowly move away from an acrimonious political season, looking back to study the images of previous campaigns has never been more important. Eileen Battat, in the introduction to her book Witnesses to History, explains the significance of this study: “The poster provides a link with the past and makes possible the witnessing of specific events. It serves as the barometer of a society that we can know only through secondhand experience.”[v] Only by paying attention to the details can we really understand how our present differs from, but is also still related to, our past.
Rachel Weber is a senior at SCW majoring in Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Florence B. Helzel and Eileen Battat, Witnesses to History: The Jewish Poster 1770-1985, (Berkeley, CA: The Museum, 1989), 12.
[iii] Political Graveyard Staff, “Index to Politicians: Frank-bailey to Frankle”, Political Graveyard, available at www.politicalgraveyard.com.
[iv] George Sokolowsky, “Court Bargaining Charge Made Public,” Kentucky New Era, 10 September, 1948, available at: www.news.google.com/newspapers.
[v] Helzel, 13.