During and following World War II, children across the United States used their pocket money to collect trading cards that depicted the activities of the U.S. military in a variety of times and places, both current conflicts such as the Pacific Theater in World War II or the Korean War of 1950–1953, and historical ones, such as the Mexican-American War and the American Revolutionary War. Although many cards showed lurid and violent conflict, much of this kind of action was depicted at a distance, either geographically or temporally. In general, cards presented the military as a benign peacekeeping force, which relied on every man knowing his role within a system and which was able to provide career options that would turn boys into men. In this way the cards, which were marketed primarily to boys between 6 and 14, frequently echoed the rhetoric of military recruiting.
Most of the military cards in The Strong museum’s collection were published by Gum, Inc. during World War II, with illustrations and text provided by advertising executive George Moll of Philadelphia. We can be certain that this is the case because the same images and much of the text on these cards also appeared, credited to Moll, in other contemporary texts, notably the 1942 Rand McNally publications America’s Navy and America’s Army.
When I came to The Strong to delve deeper into trading cards, one of my goals was to gain an appreciation for the materiality of the cards and how that might affect play with them. I was able to do this both by handling the cards myself and by diving into library research. The Sid Sackson papers were especially useful, because they contain analyses of collecting among children, as well as of strategic card games and the various modes through which cards and collecting intersect with play. However, having discerned the connection between Gum, Inc., and other children’s texts of the period, one of the most useful aspects of my visit was a chance to place these cards in their context by looking at other contemporary artifacts.
One that caught my eye was a collection of comic books published in 1959 by Gilberton Company, Inc. These portrayed the history of the armed forces in the United States, with volumes for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The comic books featured strip-style illustrated stories about military engagements across U.S. history and, like the trading cards, the comics positioned any violence associated with the military either overseas or in a distant historical period. Just like trading cards in the early postwar era, these magazines focused on the beneficence of the U.S. military’s peacekeeping efforts (while conveniently eliding any colonial overtones) and the character-building ethos of joining the service, interspersed with seemingly unconnected stories about wildlife, world history, and science.
One story in particular stood out: “Becoming a Marine,” in The Illustrated History of the Marines. At the start of this story, we meet 17-year-old Dick Harper, who in the first page of the story is called a “sissy” by his peers. He spots a recruitment advertisement that reads “Builds Men” and requests the consent of his parents to join the Marines. In the story we see the kinds of routine examinations and training that Marines recruits participated in, activities that are also present in many trading cards of the period. The story ends demonstrating that training as a Marine has opened up a variety of career choices to Dick. This kind of story, showing a boy becoming a man through military training, with the elision of violence, and a focus on peacekeeping and career options, was prevalent in trading cards in the 1950s, and was also reflective of U.S. Marines training material of the period.
Although these magazines were not the primary goal of my visit to The Strong museum, they have helped me to better place the trading cards of my dissertation into the context of the period and allowed me to recognize the kinds of discourses in which these cards circulated. Trading cards were perhaps the cheapest and most available imagery of military life for children in this era, but they existed among other similar texts aimed at children, many of which portrayed the U.S. Military in the same way: a career choice, a character-building exercise, and a benevolent force in modern society.
Article by Harrie Kevill-Davies, 2021 Valentine-Cosman Research Fellow and PhD candidate, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL