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Pocketbook Patriotism: Advertising and the First World War

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Wilfred Owen, one of the greatest poets of World War I, asserted that if everyone could experience the brutality of war for themselves, we “would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” It is sweet and honorable to die for your country.

But what if he had said, “It is sweet and honorable to buy for your country”?

In our latest blog post (part of a series commemorating the centennial of the beginning of World War I), we look at a selection of advertisements published between 1914 and 1918 in the British magazine Punch. Special Collections holds original copies of Punch going back to the first issue in 1841. The advertisements provide material for students and scholars interested in studying how the war affected the economy. Historians have long been interested in war profiteering, especially in regard to armaments. What opportunities did the war present for businesses that sold more mundane products like soap, soup, and cigarettes? Was moneymaking necessarily unpatriotic?

“Unruffled heads at Headquarters are vital to success in the field,” one advertisement for Royal Vinolia hair cream declares. “And vital to a good appearance is a glossy, well-kept head of hair.” The company’s toothpaste was also battle-tested. The manufacturers of Lifebuoy Soap hinted that if their product was good enough for the unsanitary conditions in the trenches (“It fights the disease while they fight the foe”), it was good enough for your home. McClinton’s shaving soap was a favorite of the “more discerning members” of the armed forces. “You will find it just the thing for your own use, or to send to your relatives or friends on Service.”

Many of the products advertised in Punch, in fact, would have been sent by loved ones to soldiers in the trenches, or purchased by servicemen themselves while on leave. Cigarettes and alcohol were especially prized. Although it undoubtedly angered temperance activists, one advertisement for whiskey shows a British bulldog seated on a cannon carriage; a clever motto, “The Spirit of the Empire!”, is printed underneath. Another ad depicts a soldier saying goodbye to his sweetheart. “Now, will you promise to send me news of yourself every day,” he asks, “and some Kenilworth cigarettes every week?”

Far from being unpatriotic, manufacturers of such products helped maintain morale in extremely depressing circumstances. And as an ad for the Decca Portable Gramophone pointed out, “It is not all fighting. There is a deal of watching, a deal of waiting and a deal of monotony. That is why the ‘Decca’… is so keenly welcomed at the Front.”

ww1ads_014Advertisers also stressed the importance of buying products made in Britain. “Unless you are a ‘neutral’,” like the Americans and the Dutch, one advertisement from February 1917 observes, “it is both unpatriotic and bad business to buy a fountain pen made abroad. Unpatriotic because that pen would have to be paid for in British gold, which means sending out of the country gold needed to end the war. Bad business because here in England a better pen is made than any imported from abroad. No other pen combines in itself so many advantages as you find in the British ‘Onoto’ Self-filling Safety Fountain Pen.”

To see more ads like these, stop by Special Collections and have a look at Punch (Rare AP101 .P8 MCILRM). Also see our guide to Periodicals in the Arts and Humanities for other sources of advertisements.

Further reading:

Amanda Jane Doran, The Huns Have Got my Gramophone!: Advertisements from the Great War (2014).

S. N. Broadberry, The Economics of World War I (2005).



Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with: ,

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