The latest installation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is a government-issued billboard from World War II, reassembled and restored to its original, vivid condition. The signage, which went on display the day before the government shutdown forced all Smithsonian museums to close, is a victim of unfortunate timing. President Roosevelt’s call, “We can”¦ We will”¦ We must!” seems at odds with the rhetoric of the current national conversation.
The billboard is a remnant of a 1940s federal campaign to rally national support for World War II and finance U.S. military operations. Many slogans and images tapped into consumers’ sense of patriotism to persuade them to buy government bonds, known as defense bonds before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and dubbed war or victory bonds after. In return, citizens received a certificate that guaranteed their money back after the war was won.
This billboard, created by artist Carl Paulson for the Treasury Department, debuted as the war broke out, appearing in more than 30,000 locations in March and April of 1942.
The United States doesn’t bombard its citizens with colorful ads and patriotic slogans to help cover its deficit anymore, but people can buy Treasury bonds any time. Their willingness to do so, however, may change in the coming weeks. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the government will run out of money to pay its bills. When that happens, the value of Treasury bonds, which the government uses to borrow money, will plummet.
The exhibit, along with the rest of the Smithsonian’s collections, remains in the dark until the government reopens. Until then, here’s a video about how curators reassembled the 12-piece poster.