Documenting the World of Outlander – The Posters of World War II

Contributed by Josh Hager and Alison Thurman, Public Services Unit

Welcome back to Documenting the World of Outlander! While we wait with bated breath for the next season of Outlander, we will continue this blog series with the aim of releasing a new entry each month during the hiatus. We hope that we can provide some interesting historical content that supplements your interest in the show.

For our first season hiatus blog, we’re going to focus on a topic that we would have covered if we had this blog series when Season One aired. Unlike all our prior entries that focused on colonial North Carolina, this time we’re zeroing in on Claire’s origins as a nurse in the Second World War. While the State Archives of North Carolina does not have records of the British military from the Second World War, we do have a great deal of material on the involvement of North Carolinians in that most significant conflict. Researchers interested in seeing our holdings concerning World War II should consult our finding aids on the State Archives of North Carolina website. Some collections are currently undergoing reprocessing, so if you expect an item and do not see a finding aid, please contact the Archives directly for further information. In this blog, we will focus specifically on the World War II posters collected from various official and private organizations. The World War II posters are available on our Digital Collections website to browse and search by keyword.

The first two posters that connect to Outlander represent nursing, Claire’s profession while serving Great Britain. As in the United Kingdom, the US government mounted a publicity campaign to encourage women to enlist as nurses. For example, consider this poster below, created in 1942 by the Office of War Information where the hands of a patriotic figure, perhaps Uncle Sam, bestow the tell-tale nurse’s hat to a new recruit.

“Become a Nurse – Your Country Needs You,” Office of War Information, 1942. World War II Papers. Military Collection. State Archives of North Carolina. MilColl.WWII.Posters.2.16.c1

In our second example, the message focuses on personal rather than patriotic benefits. Artist Jon Whitcomb created this 1944 poster for the US Public Health Service asking women to become cadet nurses. The poster proclaims that cadet nurses are the girls “with a future” because they would receive “a lifetime education FREE for high school graduates who qualify.” Aside from having a multi-faceted publicity campaign, the gap of two years between the posters might help to explain the difference in targeted messaging. In 1942, with the Pearl Harbor attack still fresh in the collective conscience, appeals to patriotism alone would have likely proven effective. By 1944, while patriotism was still a strong motivator to enlist in the military, the prolonged fighting on multiple fronts led to a sense of fatigue in some civilians as well as a desire to look forward at what society would look like once hostilities ceased. Therefore, appealing to a post-war future where women could gain the skills necessary to enter the workforce made a lot of marketing sense.

Jan Whitcomb. “Be a Cadet Nurse – The Girl With a Future,” 1944. US Public Health Service. World War II Papers. Military Collection. State Archives of North Carolina. MilColl.WWII.Posters.2.15.c1

Looking more specifically at Claire’s medical career in the Outlander series, it is important to place Claire’s penchant for healing within the context of her life events up to the onset of the Second World War. Claire lost her parents at a very young age and lived a nomadic life as a child with her uncle, an archeologist. Her first opportunity for a stable home and family is her marriage, which is disrupted when England enters WWII and she and her husband volunteer for service. Claire’s interest in nursing stems from her wanting to become a part of something bigger during a time of such suffering and from her natural talents as a healer. In the beginning, her decision to serve as a nurse stems from patriotism. As the war goes on, while Claire’s patriotism does not waver, her nursing experience becomes an outlet for her to explore her natural interest in healing. While Claire remained unsure of her medical future when she fell through the stones, her experience during the war gave her the confidence to continue as a healer. From her time in Scotland in 1948 through to her time in the United States and medical school in 1957, Claire built upon her nursing experience to become an accomplished medical professional.

Let’s now shift from a discussion of nursing to a poster talking about the role of the United Kingdom in World War II more broadly. The World War II Poster Collection contains several posters that mention Great Britain in her role as an ally, both before and after American involvement began in December 1941. We will highlight one example here that provides a stark illustration of the stakes of the World War. Artist Maxwell Gordon composed the striking image below showing a Nazi boot crushing the New York skyline. Gordon’s poster, commissioned by the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, intended to scare Americans into a greater level of involvement in helping Great Britain fend off the forces of the Third Reich. The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies only lasted for two years, from 1940 to 1941, but the organization contributed to the growing percentages of Americans who advocated for more active assistance to the Allied forces before the bombing at Pearl Harbor. You can learn more about this organization through this historical outline written by archivists at Princeton University, where the committee’s papers are kept.

Maxwell Gordon. “Help Britain Defend America: Speed Production,” [1940-1942]. Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. World War II Papers. Military Collection. State Archives of North Carolina. MilColl.WWII.Posters.12.13.

Claire saw posters like these strewn throughout London before she traveled back to the 18th Century and a certain Scotsman. The 1940s was a peak time for posters of the marketing and propaganda varieties. Imagine going from the world that created these posters to a pre-American Revolution in Scotland (and all the places and times in-between). Claire Fraser’s personal journey is worthy of a poster all its own.

Stay tuned for our next blog as we cover another topic that informs the Fraser’s arc throughout the series. We will soon “cross the pond” as we discuss colonial-era immigration from Europe to North Carolina.