World War I and American Art: Philadelphia’s Unsung Contributions

Soldiers skirmished throughout continental Europe, darkening the soil with bold and illuminating the sky above with contrails and phosphorous, and all the while artists from around the world immortalized their struggles with a brush and canvas. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts created a new exhibit commemorating WWI this past Friday, Nov. 4, and while many Philadelphians may be aware of the horrors this conflict spawned, they may not know just how big a hand their own city had in the effort.

The exhibit, per PAFA’s website, is “the first major exhibition devoted to exploring the ways in which American artists responded to the First World War,” and is open until April 9 of next year. The collection boasts 160 pieces from more than 80 different artists, which run the gamut of styles from paintings and wartime propaganda posters, to sculptures and artifacts lifted directly from the heart of the conflict.

“This is, I think, the first project of its kind that displays WWI in this way,” said Matt Herzog, PAFA’s Visitors Experience Supervisor, “no other exhibit has tried to capture the essence and the history of the war through the artists that actually lived through it.”

Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe, two such artists, have their pieces displayed in a Philadelphia-based memorial to the grand struggle that is the Great War. Fitting too, because Philly was one city that didn’t back away when the nation answered the world’s call.

Firstly, Philadelphia gave the most important component to any large-scale military endeavor: troops. During the first draft call on Sept. 19, 1917, Philly alone sent over 14,000 men, making up 45 percent of the northeastern 79th Division. The influx of Pennsylvania doughboys was so great that the 312th Artillery and 315th Infantry groups became known as “Philadelphia’s Own.”Some of those enlisted went on to command a sizable chunk of officer positions as well.

Mrs. George W. Childs Drexel, a local woman, rallied the city’s female population to assume a new societal role, as much of the men were taken by the draft. Drexel founded the Women’s Division for National Preparedness in 1915, which organized the city and surrounding areas into nearly 40 chapters, each with a chairperson and a few hundred members. The coalition fought the war at home, providing aid to wartime families, surgical supplies to be shipped to the battlefields, and nursing and textile jobs.

“WWI was probably one of the first mold-breaking periods for women in our history,” said Andrew Miller, a professor of history at Neumann University, “the Suffrage movement and the expanded female presence in WWII can trace their roots back to the first war.”

The Navy broke new ground in 1917, becoming the first branch of the nation’s military to accept women in a non-medical position. Loretta Perfectus Walsh pledged herself as a chief yeoman, an enlisted that deals with naval instructions and administrative work, at age 21 in March.

PAFA itself had a small role in the local war effort as well, as almost 60 percent of students enrolled in their courses were enlisted in 1917. Artists at the time painted posters for liberty bonds and service incentives, eventually selling about $3.7 million in bonds, far exceeding their $50,000 quota. They even offered free admission to all soldiers in uniform.

Philadelphia had more than just troops, however. Industry in the Keystone State flourished during wartime, and thus had the money, the material, and the manpower to fill frontline-bound ships with Philadelphian hardware; everything from munitions and knives to pencils and tent heaters.

Third Street, for instance, was home to a small leather producing plant owned by the Alexander Brothers, which during wartime shifted production from belts to harnesses for weapons and horses. Demand was so great that even after the government halted production, the brothers could form the Alexander Leather Company in 1918.

“All things start on the drafting board,” and to start anything drawing instruments such as sextants, compasses, and dividers are needed. Philly’s Theodore Altender & Sons began to manufacture these often-overlooked elements after America lost faith in German imports. After several rejections, the company worked around the clock to create high grade instruments that filled over 90 percent of the government’s quota.

The Baldwin Locomotive Works drove what some generals called “a railway war” by utilizing Philadelphia factories to produce locomotives to be shipped to Europe. The trains ranged from long convoys that transported the three million or so tons of ammunition that a heated battle might expend, to single cars with 14 inch naval cannons mounted topside.

Meanwhile, tucked away in Northeast Philadelphia, the Frankford Arsenal developed an incendiary substance to be used in a new and experimental 11mm bullet called a Mark XI, while in the meantime also brokered a contract with American Metal Works to store more than two million 30-caliber tracer rounds within its walls. Some distance away, the Eddystone Munitions Company was busy crafting over six and a half million shells stuffed into nearly two million cartridge cases.

The hardware Philly helped to provide paid off, and beginning in January 1919 the soldiers at home welcomed back the soldiers from over there. Large parades and celebrations were held in city hall, Broad Street, Center City, and Pier 53 for most of the year as wave after wave returned home, ending on May 29 with the 79th Division.

The Academy attempts to show through art the rippling effects of the Great War that persist today, especially now as we reflect on the conflict a century on. While artists responded in their way, remember that Philadelphia responded in its way.

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