Poster History

100 Years Ago Today: The Sinking of the Lusitania

100 years ago today, the sinking of Cunard’s luxurious Lusitania off the coast of Ireland by a U-Boat took 1,198 lives (including 123 Americans) and evoked a visceral anti-German reaction in England and the US. The deadly submarine cordon around Britain was one of the most visible signs that WWI would be the most destructive war ever — an all-out struggle involving civilians and soldiers alike. Ultimately the atrocity would be a chief reason for US entry in the war two years later against Germany and its allies.

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This powerful 5 foot tall  “Remember the Lusitania – Enlist To-Day” broadside was printed immediately following the sinking to appeal to the public sentiment surrounding the tragic loss of lives. Consisting of text only, it quotes from the jury’s verdict, which matched the intensity of feelings surrounding the atrocity: the great ship sank in 18 minutes, taking with it many leading figures of the era.

The creation of the Lusitania represented the optimism and technological sophistication of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This recently sold poster by Odin Rosenvinge from around 1907 shows the majestic ship slicing through rough seas, seen under a moonlit sky and traversed by the beacon of a nearby lighthouse. Moody and romantic, it is one of the rarest and most beautiful of all ocean liner posters.

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The Lusitania and its sister, the Mauretania, were the largest and fastest on the sea, utilizing steam turbines for the first time. Moreover, the ships displayed unrivaled luxury and comfort prompting its rival White Star to build the Titanic a few years later. The sinking of the Lusitania cut British pride to the core.

Erik Larson’s recently released narrative non-fiction novel, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and tells the compelling tale of the sinking of the Lusitania. Larson consulted archival materials, including code books, intercepted telegrams, photographs, U-boat logs, and even love letters from Woodrow Wilson. A great summer read!

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