Exhibit | September 25, 2018

"Playing Soldier" on View at the Grolier Club

Jacket image.jpegNew York--This fall, the Grolier Club presents an exhibition of the books, printed ephemera, and toys relating to military life and wartime experience that were published or produced for children and teens during two consecutive but dramatically different periods: first, the era from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914; and second, the 51 months of fighting that comprised “the war to end all wars.”  The exhibition is on view in the second-floor gallery through October 27, 2018.

During the years leading up to the war, there was an arms buildup among the nations who were anxious to protect their borders from predatory neighbors or to defend their colonies against attacks from within or without. As a consequence, these countries felt compelled to prepare their youth for a future armed conflict, utilizing whatever literary and leisure-time means were at hand.

Curated by collector Richard Cheek, “The Books and Toys that Prepared Children for War” will demonstrate how these publications and products were used to persuade boys to admire and wish to become soldiers and sailors, and to accept war as an inevitable form of human behavior that offered them a swift path to manhood requiring acts of exceptional bravery, selfless service, and patriotic devotion.

To encourage boys to follow this path by first “playing soldier,” traditional forms of literature were used. ABCs and picture books familiarized young readers with the types, ranks, and routines of the men in the armed forces, and, less often, of the women in the medical corps. Story collections and novels highlighted daring wartime adventures, scientific studies revealed the “wonder” of military inventions, and history books and ballads emphasized the great battles that had solidified each nation. Fairy tales created heroes or heroines who could withstand or triumph over evil forces, and anthropomorphic tales sent animals out to trick or frighten the enemy.

Toys were also part of this recruiting campaign because uniform sets, faux guns and swords, and rocking horses helped boys to act out their military fantasies, while toy soldiers and board games provided them with the vicarious thrill of leading a regiment to victory or of capturing the enemy’s stronghold with the right move.

Once the Great War broke out on August 4, 1914, and rapidly expanded, old forms of literature had to be adapted and new genres developed to help children and teens adjust to the new realities of a relentless worldwide conflict. These publications will comprise the second part of the exhibition, along with the toys that reinforced wartime play. From satirical attacks against the enemy in picture books and stories of atrocities in propaganda pamphlets to reassuring accounts of young heroes and guides for home front involvement in the war effort, “the books issued for ‘the duration’ are among the most creatively and movingly illustrated titles in the entire spectrum of military publications for children,” comments Cheek.

All of the items to be displayed in the exhibit were produced by the four nations that would become the main protagonists on the Western Front: Britain, France (and its ally Belgium), Germany (and its ally Austria), and the United States. Because of distinct national differences in the design, text, and illustration of the publications, the show and the catalogue will be divided into four sections according to country.


Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated catalogue, available at the Grolier Club or online through Oak Knoll Books, www.oakknoll.com. 


Curator Richard Cheek will lead public tours of the exhibition from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on the following dates, no reservations required: 

Thursday, September 13; Wednesday, September 19; Thursday, October 4; Friday, October 26. 

Image: Marie Flatscher and Ludwig Morgenstern. Heil und Sieg! Munich: J.F. Schreiber, c. 1916. Collection of Richard Cheek