Immigrants and Ethnicity



An advertisement for the campaign in Italian
Figure 1. An advertisement for the campaign in Italian. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At the time of the United War Work Campaign, the United States was still incredibly diverse and the organizers of the United War Work Campaign presented their message of a unified America to a polyglot, multi-ethnic nation. Massive numbers of immigrants arrived from eastern and southern Europe in the decades prior and English-speaking nativist Americans viewed these immigrants as racially and culturally inferior. Many of these ethnic groups stayed relatively segregated in their respective neighborhoods and areas. Often, they retained their native language, which was bolstered by ethnic houses of worship and newspapers in their own language. These newspapers, such as Der Seguiner Zeitung of Seguin, Texas, L’Abeille de Nouvelle-Orleans of Louisiana and La Prensa and Il Progresso Italo-Americano of New York, were the main vehicles through which the United War Work Campaign enlisted the support of foreign born immigrants during the campaign. The fact that the United War Work Campaign ran ads in so many different languages shows just how linguistically divided the nation was.

Immigrants on the Front and At Home

An examination of the Army of the day offer a glimpse into these ethnic and linguistic divisions. Around 18% of the U.S. Army were foreign-born.[1]  Perhaps 100,000 of these men could not speak English. U.S. troops in the early days of the conflict spoke nearly some fifty different languages.[2] With the outbreak of war, many progressives both inside and outside the military hoped that service on the front lines and home front would help promote American nationalism among the foreign-born. Fundraising drives such as the United War Work Campaign advertisements typically tried to inspire patriotism and a sense of Americanism among the immigrant communities they were addressing.

An advertisement in Der Seguiner Zeitung challenging Germans to prove their patriotism.
Figure 2. An advertisement challenging Germans to prove their patriotism. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Anti-German Action at Home

German-Americans, one of the largest ethnic groups in the nation, confronted xenophobic hysteria at the outbreak of war. A number of universities and school districts went so far as to ban German language instruction.[3] German music fell out of use in the states. Acts of violent vigilantism occurred as well, with the lynching of Robert Prager, a German-American, in Collinsville, Illinois in April, 1918 being one of the most infamous.[4] Often, German-Americans and immigrants suspected of being disloyal were forced to kiss flags to prove their fidelity to angry mobs.[5] Mobs burned German books in Shawnee, Oklahoma and Spartanburg, North Carolina.[6]

This rabid xenophobia was not an accident. U.S. propaganda of the time often portrayed Germans as unhuman and monstrous.  U.S. newspapers and publications fanned the flames by warning against spies and slackers, making an atmosphere in which any American was suspect. Most German-Americans supported the war effort and in World War I America, it would have been foolish not to. Consider the advertisement in Figure 2. The admonition to “to prove that you are a 100% American,” was not a passive suggestion. German-Americans lived in a nation that was suspicious of their heritage and identity. In this atmosphere, many German Americans felt compelled to buy bonds and give money, often with the threat of force hanging over there heads. One concerned citizen wrote a letter to the Atlantic Monthly, complaining of the draconian measures vigilantes in Wisconsin were using to extort Liberty Bonds from German-Americans.[7] While there has been no scholarship on compulsory donations in the United War Work Campaign, it can be concluded that many German-Americans, confronted with a xenophobic press and a distrustful public, felt the need to prove their loyalty through giving.

The Campaign Among Immigrants.

The United War Work Campaign’s organizers published ads  in German, Spanish, Italian and other foreign-language newspapers across the country, which were often strikingly similar and shared the same tropes. The Liberty Loan campaigns and War Savings stamp ads brought non-English reading immigrants to the government’s home front efforts while simultaneously familiarizing them with Anglo-America’s ideals of what an American was. Often, American

An ad for Bayer Aspirin in Il Progresso Italo-Americano. Note the use of the phrase "100% Americano."
Figure 3. An ad for Bayer Aspirin in Italian. “100% Americano.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

symbols, such as the flag or a bald eagle were included in these advertisements and sometimes other advertisements used this to their advantage. (See Figure 3 ) Political cartoons, typically lampooning Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German empire, were also fairly common.

One of the most enthralling aspects of these foreign language newspapers is how similar the different papers are in their support of the war. Il Progresso Italo-Americano, an Italian newspaper, adamantly supported the war effort, which is not surprising considering Italy was allied with the U.S. However, Der Seguiner Zeitung was  a German paper. While the paper did not address the war as often as other foreign-language newspapers, Der Zeitung still expressed anti-Central Power sentiments when it did publish articles on the war.

The United War Work Campaign’s advertisements in foreign language newspapers followed the same template as its English language ads. They always referred to the campaign in English, even if the supplemental writing in the ad it was featured in was in a different language. Most of the coverage of the campaign was typically confined to visual ads or symbols, like those in English papers. Articles about the campaign spoke of the need to forsake creed or language in order to unite as Americans. An advertisement for the Campaign from the New York Spanish-language paper La Prensa, seen to the right, spoke of the need for entertainment “during the long and monotonous months of demobilization.”[8]

An advertisement for the Campaign in the Spanish newspaper, La Prensa.
Figure 4. An advertisement for the campaign in Spanish. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Without exception, these newspapers never spoke of the good that the individual seven sister organizations were doing for different nationalities. Instead, they championed how American soldiers were treated, regardless of creed, language or ethnicity. This suggests that American unity and identification, so crucial to how the United War Work Campaign sold its work, existed in immigrant enclaves across the country. Whether or not these patriotic pieces and advertisements were believed by the German, Italian and Spanish speaking readers who saw them, or were simply published to prove “100 % Americanism” is still unanswered. Regardless, the United War Work Campaign’s nationalism, an ideology that transcended language, creed or ethnic background, was accepted without apparent contradiction by immigrant communities who were seen as “not American.”


          [1]Arthur P Young, Books for Sammies: The American Library Association and World War I (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Beta Phi Mu, 1981), 2.

          [2] Young, Books for Sammies: The American Library Association and World War I, 2.

          [3] H. C Peterson and Gilbert Courtland Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), 196.

          [4] Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918, 202.

          [5] Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918, 196.

          [6] Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918, 196.

          [7] Charles D. Stewart, “‘Prussianizing Wisconsin’ by Charles D. Stewart, The Atlantic Monthly,”, January 1919,

          [8]“United War Work Campaign,” La Prensa, November 16, 1918, no. 252 edition, Reel 1, Newspaper and Periodical Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.