This war poster plays on the familiarity of the phrase ‘the widow’s mite’. The word ‘mite’ is the English translation of the widow’s offering in the King James Version, which in 1917 was still the dominant translation used in the English-speaking world.
Shortly after entering the First World War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson endeavoured to ‘sell the war to a sceptical American public’ (Noble, Swaney, Weiss 2017: 9), in part through the Division of Pictorial Publicity (DPP). The DPP recruited ‘many of the nation’s best artists’—more than 300 of them—'to create posters for every facet of the war effort’, including posters urging Americans to buy Liberty Bonds, which were issued to support the Allied forces during WWI (ibid: 10). The DPP printed millions of posters designed to convince Americans that it was their patriotic duty to buy the bonds.
One poster designed by artist Frederick Strothmann declared, ‘Beat back the Hun with Liberty Bonds’, and featured a grim German soldier holding a sword dripping with blood (Kang & Rockoff 2015: 51). In another poster by artist C. R. Macauley, the Statue of Liberty points sternly at the viewer alongside the words, ‘YOU buy a Liberty Bond lest I perish’. The selling of Liberty Bonds eventually raised seventeen billion dollars for the United States war effort.
This particular poster uses the story of the widow’s offering to evoke the noble act of giving sacrificially to a good cause—not to the Temple, as in the Gospel accounts, but to the United States Treasury. The poster emphasizes that even the smallest contribution (symbolized by the ‘mite’) added to the might of the Allied soldiers. Strong, straight lines in red, white, and blue evoke the American flag. No possibility is entertained here that these contributions might end up being ‘devoured’ (Mark 12:40) in the service of a devouring war, rather than used for some better good.
Kang, Sung Won, and Hugh Rockoff. 2015. ‘Capitalizing Patriotism: The Liberty Loans of World War I’, Financial History Review, 22.1: 45–78
Noble, Aaron, Keith Swaney, and Vicki Weiss. 2017. A Spirit of Sacrifice: New York State in the First World War (Albany: Excelsior Editions)
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places 39and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. 43And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46“Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
21 He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; 2and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. 3And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”