Remembering Those Who Served: The WWI Servicemen Portrait Collection
Posted On: 04/19/2017 - 1:10pm, Posted By: Scott Gampfer, Director of History Collections and Library
April 6, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. Every other Wednesday, we will present items from our collections that highlight life in Cincinnati, around the nation and from the battlefields during the war.
First Lieutenant Hall A. Taylor, Co. D, 148th Infantry, killed in action September 28, 1918.
For those who attended the U.S. and Allied Governments War Exposition, held in Cincinnati at Music Hall in December 1918, one of the most poignant features of the event was the display of approximately six thousand photographs of area servicemen and women loaned to the local organizers for inclusion in the exposition. Although a travelling exposition, the local committee solicited the loan of photographs from the families of Cincinnati area servicemen to be used in a special added display. The committee assured families that they would handle the images with care and return them after the exposition ended.
Catalogue for the Allied War Exposition at Music Hall, December 14-22, 1918.
Opening on December 14, 1918 at Music Hall, the Allied War Exposition (sometimes referred to as the Victory War Exposition) ran for nine days and attracted over 164,600 visitors. Cincinnati was one of numerous cities to host the Allied War Exposition in 1918 and 1919. George Creel and the Committee on Public Information conceived of the exhibition. Since 1917, Creel, a journalist and newspaper editor known for his muckraking investigative reporting, had headed President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, created to help shape public opinion about U.S. involvement in World War I and bolster support for the war effort. As Creel himself put it “Public opinion stands recognized as a vital part of the national defense, a mighty force in national attack. The strength of the firing line is not in trench or barricade alone, but has its source in the morale of the civilian population from which the fighting force is drawn.” The Committee on Public Information used a variety of devices, including some influenced by modern advertising techniques, to reach and influence the widest public audience.
State fair organizers approached the committee with requests for a war exhibit as early as the spring of 1917. Although the committee discussed the idea with the army and navy, not until the summer of 1918 did they act on the requests. Ultimately, the committee set up exhibits at thirty-five state fairs around the country. These exhibits, produced with the cooperation of the War Department and accompanied by active duty service personnel, consisted of “guns of all kinds, hand-grenades, gas-masks, depth-bombs, mines, and hundreds of other things calculated to show the people how their money was being spent.”
In June 1918, Creel was called before the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives to explain how the Committee on Public Information spent its money. Creel had something of an uphill battle convincing Congress and others of the importance of exhibits as a way of “carrying the facts of war to the People of the United States.” Some members of the appropriations committee, including its chairman, responded to Creel’s arguments with “not only a very notable lack of enthusiasm, but even a distinct disposition to regard the idea as somewhat stupid and quite unnecessary.” Nevertheless, the House did appropriate a small amount of funding specifically for “war expositions.”
The Associated Advertising Clubs of the World approached Creel and his committee with a request for a patriotic war exposition to be staged in San Francisco in July 1918 in conjunction with their annual convention. The committee contacted the U.S. War Department and the Commissions of Italy, England, France, and Canada to request war trophies for inclusion in the exposition. The San Francisco exposition, although modest, was larger and more comprehensive than the earlier state fair exhibits. The success of the event in San Francisco attracted the attention of city officials in Los Angeles who requested the exposition for their city. The war exposition drew an even larger audience in Los Angeles and made money in both cities.
The public reaction to the exposition in its first two locations, encouraged the committee to expand and improve it. Eventually it grew in size until it required its own train to transport it from one city to another. It included captured weapons and equipment from Germany and the other Central Powers, as well as Allied weapons, equipment, and uniforms. The exposition also featured photographs, artwork, musical events, speakers, and motion picture films. In some of the early venues, trench warfare was simulated in daily sham battles using real service personnel. Some of the items on display were quite large including armor, artillery, and aircraft. A great naval gun from the German raider Emden was displayed along with an enormous enemy howitzer referred to as “Big Bertha,” a tank battered by enemy fire at Chateau Thierry, and even an airplane flown by the French air ace Georges Guynemer.
A portion of the French exhibit showing machine guns and a Spad fighter plane on the floor of the Music Hall exhibition wing.
Cincinnati hosted the travelling exposition in December of 1918. Although the war had ended by the time it came to Cincinnati, interest in seeing it remained high. A month before it arrived in the city, local newspapers described what was coming. “The Victory War Exposition, conducted under the auspices of the United States Government, will be staged in Music Hall, December 14 to 22. Forty of the staunchest and largest railroad cars are required to carry it. At least forty thousand square feet of space are needed for its proper display. Every item in it is authenticated by the governments of the nations which conquered the Central Powers. It requires a company of soldiers to guard it. The United States, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, France and Canada each have a detail of veterans to explain its various features. For nine successive days it will be seen in Cincinnati.”
View looking down on a portion of the French exhibit showing wrecked fighter planes, machine guns, and assorted weapons and equipment.
The newspapers also reported on the planned display of photographs of local servicemen. “It is expected that the pictures of Cincinnatians in service will make one of the most inspiring exhibitions of its kind ever shown in the United States. The collection will be almost 100 per cent in exhibiting the entire of Cincinnatians in uniform.”
Advertising poster for the War Exposition at Music Hall
The exposition’s actual arrival in the city in December attracted great attention. The Cincinnati Times-Star ran an article under the headline “Warlike Scene in Cincinnati as Exposition Trophies Arrive” reporting that “for the next few days Cincinnati Streets between Eggleston Avenue and Music Hall will have a resemblance to sections of France during the German retreat. Hundreds of war trophies captured from the Germans will be seen going through the streets on trucks bound for the exhibition, to open at Music Hall Saturday.” Tickets could be purchased at the Music Hall box office for a price of 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
Back of ticket to the War Exposition at Music Hall.
The exposition was well received in Cincinnati with an average daily attendance of 18,291 and over 35,500 attending on the exhibition’s final day at Music Hall. The photographs of local servicemen were displayed in special rooms, including a “Gold Star” room containing the photos of those who had given their lives in service. Women volunteers, many of them mothers of servicemen, were given charge of the photos of the Cincinnati soldiers while on display.
As might be expected, the photographs of the local men in uniform, particularly those who had died, produced a profound and solemn effect on the spectators who viewed them. A reporter wrote: “But there is one exhibit which it seems, each woman visitor must see first of all. They stood in rows, three deep on Tuesday afternoon, each woman eagerly pointing out the photograph which to her was most imposing of the entire collection. Only in the gold star room there was no chatter. Men stood silent and considerately avoided each other’s eyes.” The same reporter was moved by the reaction of one woman in particular, Mrs. Ida McMinn of Newport, Kentucky, whose son had fallen in action near Chateau Thierry the previous July. After noting her reaction to seeing her son’s portrait he wrote “But the little gold star mother from Newport quickly recovered herself, her red-rimmed eyes flashing almost defiantly. ‘I am proud to see him there’ she said ‘proud for him and proud for myself that I could let him go.’”
Sergeant David McMinn, killed in action July 15, 1918 near Château Thierry in the Second Battle of the Marne.
The Victory War Exposition ended its run in Cincinnati on December 22, 1918 and like all the other cities where it was displayed, was a financial success. As promised, the local organizing committee returned the photographs to the lenders with a cover letter from Executive Secretary Edwin E. Meyers that stated “The collection of portraits of men in the service was one of the most successful features of the War Trophy Exhibit. The enclosed photograph is herewith returned in accordance with the terms under which it was loaned.” Meyers further encouraged the lenders to send a copy of their photographs to the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio (HPSO) for preservation. He emphasized that “The collection, which included over 6000 photographs, if kept together would be of great historical value.”
Many of the families who had lent their loved one’s photos for the exposition followed Mr. Meyers’ suggestion and donated copies to the society, some along with notes or letters. Ella Kirker, one of the Cincinnatians who donated a photograph to the society, sent a portrait photograph of her son, Captain George H. Kirker, to the society in May 1919 with a handwritten letter conveying her thoughts. Captain Kirker had died of complications from influenza while serving in Minnesota. His mother wrote “He was my only son, and we miss him so much. He was so good and kind to us. In perfect health, young and strong had taken his father’s place in the home since his father’s death several years ago. God gave him to us to love but Oh he has taken him from us and hope we shall meet him soon.”
Captain George Howard Kirker, who died of complications from Influenza at St. Paul, Minnesota.
In the end, Cincinnatians donated over three thousand photographs to the society’s collection. The librarian for the society noted in the HPSO annual report for 1919: “A collection of photographs, several thousand in number, of soldiers in service during the late war, has been given to us for preservation by the fathers, mothers, and other relatives. It is a precious gift, and in years to come will form a valuable historical record of this locality’s participation in the great conflict, as well as a memorial to those brave boys and men who fought and suffered for humanity.”
These photographs of loved ones entrusted to the care of the society ninety-five years ago are preserved and remain accessible to researchers today in the collections of the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at Cincinnati Museum Center.