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Antiques & Collectibles
home : features : antiques & collectibles July 26, 2017

11/13/2008 1:22:00 PM
"Gee! I Wish I Were a Man, I'd Join the Navy"

Ken Kocab
Contributing Writer

With these famous words Bernice Smith immortalized herself in American history. In 1917, as America entered World War I, thousands of young men rushed to join the Army, Marines, or Navy. Bernice Smith was an energetic 20-year-old woman who stopped by her local California recruiting office and was very interested in signing up with the U.S. Navy. Upon seeing all of the young men enlisting in the Navy, Bernice suddenly blurted out the words, "Gee I wish I were a man, I'd join the Navy."

Little did Bernice realize that also present at the recruiting station was one of America's most famous illustrators, Howard Chandler Christy. Christy had done many illustrations for various magazines over the years, but with the outbreak of the war, he was asked by the government to develop a series of military recruitment posters. Since in 1917 there was no television or radio to broadcast recruitment appeals, posters became the best way to get the public's attention.

Impressed by what Bernice had said, Christy approached her and asked if Smith would agree to pose as his model for an upcoming Navy recruitment poster. Bernice gladly accepted. Not only did Christy draw her dressed up in a sailor's outfit, but used her recruiting office quote as the central message of the poster.

This was also the first time sex appeal was used in a recruiting poster. Christy's intent was to use the sexy image of Bernice in the poster to encourage men to join the Navy. However in Bernice Smith's case an amazing thing happened. Ten days after posing for Christy, Smith went back to her local recruiting office and successfully enlisted in the Navy becoming the first California woman to do so. Smith had a successful three-year career in the Navy, and eventually rose to the rank of Chief Yeoman. During World War II, Smith tried to re-enlist in the Navy but was turned down due to age. The Army did however accept her and she served another tour of duty with them.

Beginning with World War I, posters served as a very effective method of mass communication. Posters typically spread messages, promoted causes, or convinced Americans to conserve resources. Of even greater importance was the way posters could influence public opinion or unite people for a common cause. The most famous WW I poster was James Montgomery Flagg's image of a pointing Uncle Sam saying, "I Want You for the U. S. Army!" Christy's sexy poster using Bernice Smith in a sailor's outfit was almost as popular.

Besides recruitment, posters also urged citizens to buy war bonds. The cost of the war was immense and funds were drastically needed. Americans were reminded of the "Evil Huns" and the importance of the liberties that we cherish so much. Another type of poster urged Americans to produce more goods, or to grow their own food. Conservation of food and other goods was also stressed.

The value of WWI posters varies greatly depending on the artist, the theme, and overall condition. To properly preserve these posters, collectors usually mount them on linen. Most of the original posters were meant to be used for only a short time, and thus were printed on cheap quality paper. Any folds, tears, or discolorations also reduce value. There are also many reproduction posters being sold as originals today. These fakes are even printed on old looking paper to fool buyers. The most common dimension for an original WWI poster was 41 inches by 27 inches, so if you find a poster that is smaller or larger, be careful.

Below are a few WWI posters with their approximate values today:

• "I Want You for the US Army" (Flagg) $3700

• "Gee! I Wish I were a Man... (Christy) $3795

• "Join the Air Service, Serve in France" $1495

• Walking John, US Marines, Active Service on Land and Sea $575

I would like to credit the following sources for assistance with this article:

www//find articles.com/p/articles



Related Links:
• http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles
• http://www.rare-posters.com
• http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, March 25, 2017
Article comment by: John Andrews

I have one of the posters of Gee I wish I were a man I'd join the Navy. Be a man and do it. By Howard Chandler Christy 1917. Didn't know it was worth that much and I've had it for 46 years. Going to give it to the museum in my home town. I'm a Vietnam Veteran and I served in the Navy.

Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Article comment by: Barbara Vimini

I have this poster by Christy.
I would like to sell it.
How can I do that?

Posted: Friday, July 8, 2016
Article comment by: TJ Wilkes

I have a WW1 Gees I wish I were a man so I could join the US Navy ! In perfect condition . Where can I sell it at ? Thanks

Posted: Friday, January 15, 2016
Article comment by: PETER BOWE

I have two original lady liberty third liberty loan posters one is 20 x 30 the other is 30 x 40 but they are glued to a heavy back board are they worth anything they are original you can faintly see and measure the original folds they are all even .

Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2015
Article comment by: Lucky Farr

I have a Bernice Smith Navy poster. The poster matched the size, but unfortunately I didn't know it was worth so much money before I cut it to fit a poster frame. Is that bad? Is my poster worthless now?

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