Wartime propaganda can serve a variety of purposes, from recruitment and morale-building to conservation. During World War II all of these played a role in the Office of War Information’s efforts, but perhaps the most memorable, and relevant, are the commercial slogans related to national security. Some of these, such as “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Keep it Under Your Hat” were so iconic and pervasive that major American brands used the opportunity to spread the message and demonstrate their patriotism (while building their brand). Our August 1 Vintage Posters auction includes images from the well-known “Keep It Under Your Stetson” campaign of the 1940s.
This sort of patriotic tactic was common for companies who wished to appear socially conscious during a time of national crisis. Perhaps the most famous example is Seagram’s popularization of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” by Seymour R. Gee (“Essargee”), a phrase that lives on in the American lexicon.
Essargee (Seymour R. Gee), Loose Lips Might Sink Ships, 1942-45. Courtesy of the National Archive.
Keep It Under Your Stetson
Stetson’s spin on “Keep it under your hat” was so effective that the company no longer needed to include an image of the product in their ads. Instead, the posters show the potential catastrophes that might befall American soldiers if everyday citizens didn’t take care. Decontextualized, images of the Stetson campaign are challenging: as intended, the use of the swastika feels threatening.
Stetson hats were first popularized on the American Western frontier. In the 1940s, Stetson was the most popular hat in America, reaching its peak in the WWII era. It’s not surprising that, decades later, everyone’s favorite Nazi-punching archaeologist wore one, and the success of Indiana Jones in the 1980s helped give the hat company a brief revival. The hats are still worn today. Stetson’s campaign turned the hat into an American symbol, implying that if you wore a Stetson, you’d be on the right side of history.
An early use of the source phrase “Keep it under your hat” appears in the October 1892 edition of Gleanings in Bee Culture. The periodical, published semi-monthly by Amos Ives Root out of Ohio, also contained the first printed reference to manned flight in 1905 (a copy of which we sold for $5,000 on September 28, 2017).
The phrase is used in a plea by the editor those aware of nefarious practices among beekeepers to speak out, with a promise of anonymity: “If you do not wish to have your name as informant mentioned in connection with the matter, nor any thing done about it at all, say so; at any rate, tell us where you know of a producer who is engaged in the mixing business, and we will keep it ‘under our hat’ if you say so.”
The phrase had previously been used in British texts, but with a different implication–one of a person’s thoughts or imagination. For example, in The Old Factory: A Lancashire Story, 1881, by W.B. Westall, a character explains his bachelorhood to his neighbors by saying “that he could not afford to keep a wife, that he preferred to keep his family under his hat, or that he could not find a lass to suit him.”
We know today that propaganda isn’t dead, though its primary medium has transitioned from the poster to the internet. Still, the post-9/11 catchphrase “If You See Something, Say Something” was inspired by the era of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and popularized by the MTA in New York via a poster campaign. Posters are powerful.