A look back at the Liberty Loan campaign
Editor’s note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org .
The Liberty bond was a war bond sold in the U.S. to support the costs of World War I. Not only was it the first time that the ordinary Joe was introduced to the idea of a bond, but buying a bond became a symbol of patriotism.
Almost every form of persuasion was used to convince the public that buying a bond was a way to support the soldiers on the front. Celebrities such as Al Jolson, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin all made public appearances to support the campaign. Pop music with cover art of Uncle Sam and other patriotic themes promoted the purchase of Liberty bonds.
There were four issues of Liberty Bonds during 1917-18. The first came out on April 14, 1917, but was received without much enthusiasm. When the second came out on Oct. 1, 1917, there was an aggressive campaign to sell the bonds. Liberty Day was Oct. 24, 1917, and there was a huge push for bond sales. The United Press endorsed the idea of purchasing the bonds as Christmas presents.
When the third Liberty Loan came out on April 5, 1918, vast amounts of promotional materials were manufactured. Nine million posters, five million window stickers and 10 million buttons were produced and distributed. Through the sale of these bonds, the government raised about $17 billion for the war effort.
Although I can find no evidence that the tactic was used in the Bemidji area, the aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps toured parts of the country. After performing an aerobatic show, the men would land in their “Jennies” (the Curtiss JN-4 training plane) and offer a free ride to every person who purchased a Liberty Bond. Because it was so successful, a group of Barnstormers purchased war surplus Jenny airplanes after the war and flew across the country selling airplane rides.
Major Weaver, head of the aviation branch at Dunwoody in Minneapolis, did, however, bring a Curtiss military triplane to Bemidji as part of the July 4, 1918, celebration. Very likely, he made a push for buying Liberty Loans while here. The plane left Minneapolis on July 2 and arrived at Brainerd for the first night’s stop. Accompanying the triplane was a detachment of 10 members of the aviation service including J. H. Harris, son of A. H. Harris of Bemidji, who was serving his enlistment in that capacity.
Carefully guarded by a khaki clad crew, the big government triplane rested on the lakefront at the foot of Third Street and was an object of much curiosity and interest. Much as the crew would have liked to allow the crowds to approach for a personal and detailed look, government regulations prevented any close-up inspection.
The Liberty Bonds were designed to appeal to patriotism and to get support from everyone -- from school children to millionaires -- to do their part by purchasing bonds. The entire project relied on volunteer labor, thus avoiding the money market, brokerage commissions or a paid sales force. Groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were recruited to sell the bonds.
One problem at the beginning was that the lowest denomination available was $50. At that rate, many of the working people could not afford them. The average compensation of a production worker was about 35 cents per hour. At the time, $50 was a lot of money. Consequently, the Federal Reserve came up with an early kind of installment plan. Even the poorest could purchase “War Thrift Stamps” which cost only 25 cents. The stamps were pasted on a card until 16 had been collected. At that point, they could be exchanged for a $5 stamp called a “War Savings Stamp.” These stamps were glued to a “War-Savings Certificate” and when 10 $5 stamps were collected, the certificate could be exchanged for a $50 Liberty Bond.
Because the goal was to inspire patriotic support of the war as well as borrow the money to win it, small subscribers were given preference. Large subscribers were rationed. According to the New York Times, John D. Rockefeller, who pledged $15 million, was allotted something over $3 million. So 50% of the bonds sold were for the lowest face value, $50; another one-third were sold for the $100 amount.
The loan drives used extensive advertising campaigns. Billboards, streetcar ads, reminder cards and rallies were enthusiastically embraced. A volunteer army of 60,000 women stationed members at factory gates to distribute seven million fliers on Liberty Day. Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed out two million information sheets. The Committee on Public Information took up the task of not only selling bonds but justifying U.S. participation in the war. The committee developed many of the techniques now used by modern advertising.
Bemidji’s canvassing committee of thirty business and professional men took the day off on Oct. 15, 1917, to jump start the second Liberty Loan subscription. The first men on the job were A. L. Molander and D. J. Moore. Their goal was to reach every male voter in the city, and, they added, “ladies as well.” This despite the fact that women had not won the right to vote yet! Their sales pitch was that purchasing a Liberty Bond was an act of patriotism. As a result, Bemidji came through with flying colors. When the loan was apportioned throughout the U.S., Bemidji was expected to subscribe for $125,000. Within 10 days, Bemidji had contributed $117,000 and still had time to make up their quota.
When the third Liberty Loan came up in April 1918, W. H. Gemmell, General Manager of the M & I Railroad, came up to Bemidji from Duluth as a guest of Harry Titus. Mr. Gemmell reported that the employees of the railroad were enthusiastic supporters of the Liberty Loan campaign. Praise was passed out in the local paper for purchasers such as Thomas Smith of Spur who took out $100 worth of Liberty Loan bonds. Port Hope township subscribed $1,500 for the campaign, which was acknowledged as a very generous amount for a township. Redby, although a small community, had a live wire Red Cross, and although Redby had an allotment of $1,000, it shot way over that and reported over $8,000 in sales.
The committee appealed to competition among cities and communities. It also used guilt, fear, social image and so on to push for success. One troubling aspect of the drive was that by the end of October 1918, subpoenas started being issued for Liberty Bond Slackers. “Slackers” was already a very negative term used to tag men who had not registered for the draft. When some Beltrami County citizens ignored their allotment for the fourth Liberty Loan, subpoenas were issued by Chairman W. L. Brooks of the Liberty Loan campaign. He then requested eight members of the Home Guard to serve the subpoenas on those who had failed to comply. The committee expected that only an hour or two would be required in each individual case. The motor corps would furnish the cars. Guardsmen assigned to this duty were asked to report in uniform at 9 p.m. on Oct. 31, 1918, to W. L. Brooks.
How this played out is not covered in the local papers. A huge fire in Nymore and the terrible fires in Cloquet and the flu epidemic all became front page news, and there is no follow up on this use of the Home Guard. November 11, 1918, marked the cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany. A request followed from headquarters in Bemidji that all Fourth Liberty Loan posters and signs be taken down. All who had displays in their places of business or in their homes were asked by H. H. Cominsky and W. L. Brooks to remove them.
The Liberty Bond idea was renewed again in World War II and many will remember the campaign and advertising in local theaters and banks. But that’s for another article.