Any Bonds Today?

When Uncle Sam passed the hat in World War II, Americans came up with $185 billion to buy U.S. bonds

Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" theme was rejected at first, but the posters became classics. National Museum of American History

Take a 700-pound pig, paint its toenails bright red and dangle silver bangles from its ears. Put that porker up for auction and what would it fetch? How about $19 million? By some reports that’s what "King Neptune," the war bonds hog, made between 1942 and 1946, after the animal was auctioned off again and again as part of what has been called the biggest selling campaign in history. (Once the pig was purchased, patriotic duty required the owner to donate him to the next sale.)

When the "tall man with the high hat" came knocking, as Irving Berlin called Uncle Sam in his 1942 song "Any Bonds Today?" 8 out of every 13 Americans scraped together a total of $185.7 billion to invest in victory.

Today, the government has introduced a new bond—the Patriot—to support the war against terrorism. Though it’s just a redesign of the popular Series EE savings bond, it symbolizes the same can-do spirit that helped pay for World War II.

As described in Pledging Allegiance: American Identity and the Bond Drive of World War II by Lawrence R. Samuel (Smithsonian Press, 1997), that spirit translated into a bond bandwagon that knew no bounds. Movie stars such as James Cagney, Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby turned up at rallies to extoll the virtues of investing in the bonds. Many will recall the untimely death of comedienne Carole Lombard—Clark Gable’s wife—in a plane crash. Only the day before she had raised $2.5 million at an Indianapolis bond rally. But not just celebrities were involved: bartenders, milkmen, even ice men, sold Series E bonds, in denominations from $25 to $1,000. Held to ten-year maturity, they earned 2.9 percent. (Armed Forces personnel could buy a $10 denomination.) "Virtually the only profession that had some doubts [about selling bonds]," writes Samuel, "was the clergy."

The poster proved to be the Treasury Department’s most important promotional tool. Plastered on buses and trolleys, and in libraries, schools and factories, posters drove the message home with pithy slogans and poignant appeals. So popular were Norman Rockwell’s "Four Freedoms" posters that Treasury mounted a traveling exhibition of the original art, at which bonds were sold.

Army illustrator Sgt. Ardis Hughes, now 90 and still painting at his winter home in St. Augustine, Florida, remembers being detailed to Treasury to create bond posters. "If they’d used me as a soldier," he says with a chuckle, "they would have lost the war." In one of the dozens of posters and billboards he did between 1942 and 1946, a weary soldier carries rough-hewn pickets on his shoulder. Hughes’ slogan: "War bonds are cheaper than wooden crosses."

"I did another, of a mother and a father embracing. Behind them a star hung on the wall; in their hands was a telegram. I remember showing it to a general and he said to me, 'That’s a lot of power in a little paint.'" That powerful paint sold a lot of war bonds.

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