Postcard featuring a color illustration of a girl dressed as a nurse bringing something on a tray to a boy sitting in a chair.

The Young at Heart

by Ginny A. Roth ~

Postcard featuring two children, a boy and a girl, dancing. They are dressed up as a nurse and a soldier.
A young girl and boy, dressed as a nurse and a soldier, dance together, ca. 1918.
National Library of Medicine #101611686

There is a sweet sense of innocence evoked by the sight of young children dressing up and taking on the roles that adults would play.  This World War I era postcard certainly succeeds at tugging at heart strings. A young girl, dressed as a nurse, and a young boy, dressed as a soldier, dance together, surrounded by hearts, and beneath them is a poem in which he declares himself her valentine.

On its surface both the image and the poem are beautiful sentiments for Valentine’s Day.  A day that, although its origins are a bit confusing, has evolved into a popular holiday, representing to many the opportunity to show love and affection. Below its surface, however, the image on this postcard had another purpose.  Just one example of many, it was used as propaganda during World War I to impress upon children that they, too, needed to support the war effort.

Children were not immune to the public messages that encouraged patriotism and participation in the war. Schools and children in all nations involved felt pressure to teach children the culture and values that were under threat. Young children were expected to take on significant roles during wartime, and that could include essentially shaming parents who were not contributing to the war effort. In Germany, propaganda was used in schools where children were taught to influence their parents.  This is a memorandum from the Ministry of Culture and Education:

“School children will be instructed on the importance of the initiative and encouraged to secure the support of their parents. Young people will devote themselves to this task with enthusiasm and zeal, and not without success, considering how receptive parents are towards their children’s requests.”

The children represented the future of the nation. Images depicting children as heroic were especially profound, often seen wearing soldiers and nurses uniforms, as seen in the postcard above, as well as participating in parades, waving flags, and selling war bonds.

“The young generation was expected to emerge from the conflict as an elite, more industrious, earnest and patriotic than the cohort that had preceded it.”

The Prints & Photographs collection at the National Library of Medicine has many noteworthy postcards depicting children in ways that were used as propaganda during World War I.  The gallery below displays the beauty and artistry of these postcards… and their effectiveness in supporting the war effort.

Several of these postcards are also featured in the digital gallery of our exhibition Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, which examines how images of nurses are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences.

Through 2018, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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