“These days the poster pops up everywhere on the internet, printed on all sorts of clothing from tee-shirts to thongs, on refrigerator magnets, wall-clocks, what-have-you, with claims it is a ‘work of art’ or an ‘enduring image on the national psyche’. Nowhere is credit given the photographer or the model.
“Perhaps I’m the only one now living who recalls the production of the poster.”
Wonderful, I thought: inside information! She continued:
“In June 1942 I was a seventeen-year-old pre-med freshman at Barnard College in New York City. My maiden name was Weslee Wootten and I earned my university fees doing ‘Back to School’ fashion shows for the Fifth Avenue stores and other modeling. I received a call from the well-known commercial photographer William Ritter, with whom I worked previously on ads for [Jergens] lotion and Lux soap.
“When I arrived at the studio I was asked to put on a student nurse’s uniform. An older man was given navy blue gauntlets with white stars and red and white stripes, obviously made just for the shoot.
“Mr. Ritter usually tried several compositions and took lots of pictures but this day he showed me a large pencil-drawn layout: Uncle Sam’s sleeves and hands reached to cap a nurse, whose face was blank. The layout was the work of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency…and had been approved in Washington. Mr Ritter told me we had to follow the layout exactly, adding, ‘This one is important, it is big.’
“Little did I expect the resulting poster to be so popular 66 years later! The photographer William Ritter and the model Weslee Wootten (D’Audney) need remain anonymous no longer.”
In a postscript, she added that she and her family visited the Smithsonian in 1958. Her sons spotted the “Become a Nurse” poster bearing her glowing young face, near planes suspended from the ceiling (presumably of the Arts and Industries Building). They excitedly reported, “Mom, you’re hanging in the Smithsonian!”
I wrote to Ms. D’Audney and said I was hunting for the copy of the poster that she and her family saw in 1958. My initial desire had been just to find a convenient location to record the information she had supplied, especially the names of photographer and model. My museum and archival cataloguing instincts suggested that I add it to the SIRIS catalog entry for the Archives Center’s copy of the poster—if we had one—and then to relay it to the Smithsonian repository holding the copy Ms. D’Audney had seen. I didn’t realize that this would turn out to be a complex and confusing task.
|Office of War Information poster, 1942,|
Princeton University Poster Collection
Ms. D’Audney’s story has been on the Internet for more than two years, so this article is hardly a journalistic scoop. She was interviewed and extensively quoted in the New Zealand Sunday Star Times, April 5, 2008 (“The face behind a famous poster,” author uncredited), based on a memoir she wrote. The article provides the charming story of her postwar marriage to Noel D’Audney, a Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot, as well as her glamorous career as a popular advertising and fashion model. Since the Archives Center has major collections devoted to the history of advertising, it occurred to me that Ms. D’Audney might also appear in our collections of advertisements for Jergens, Lux, and other brand names, but a search produced no definitive results.
The exercise of locating this poster among multiple poster collections interests me from the standpoint of collection access and retrieval. At this writing, the Archives Center’s Princeton University Poster Collection is represented by many paper cataloguing worksheets, not yet typed into SIRIS, plus thousands of completed SIRIS records. Only three of these SIRIS records have links to image files at the present time. A few other posters have been scanned, but have not been linked to SIRIS item-level entries yet. What of the other Smithsonian collections of war posters I’ve mentioned? Some posters undoubtedly have been catalogued into separate databases which do not yet have a public interface like SIRIS. But even if these databases were online, researchers may need to search them separately because they are in separate information “silos,” as we like to say.
|Poster, produced by the American Nurses Association,|
1942. Model Weslee Price Wooten posed as a nurse with
"Uncle Sam"for photographer William Ritter.
Many other institutions have major collections of war posters which are searchable online. Until a digital surrogate for the Smithsonian copy of the William Ritter/Weslee Wootten “Become a Nurse” poster becomes available, I took the liberty of copying an image from the University of North Texas Digital Library!
David Haberstich, NMAH Archives Center