An “Illuminating Post”: Silent Stars Support the Third and Fourth Liberty Loan Campaigns

From the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building, the next time you are out and about exploring Washington, D.C. and taking in as many memorials, monuments, and museums as you can, I have a suggestion for your sightseeing list.  Although located next to a familiar residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, I doubt the spot I am about to describe is ever mentioned on tours through the city, and I have found by going there myself that unless you have a special appointment, you will have to be content to view it from somewhat of a distance.  Nevertheless, I think you may find this unique bit of history well worth your time if you have a moment to spare and a willing imagination.  Interested?

If so, simply make your way to the south entrance of the Eisenhower Executive Building at the corner of 17th Street and State Place, walk up to the surrounding gate, and look toward the main stairway that leads out to the First Infantry Division Monument.  There, near the base of the steps, you will see it—a lamppost!  Actually, you will see a number of lampposts, and you may well find that you are the only person around showing even the slightest interest in the whole lot, but don’t let this dissuade you.  Instead, close your eyes and imagine that you were standing there before them just over a century ago on April 6, 1918, when the forecourt of the (then) State, War, and Navy Building was brimming with spectators who had gathered to see four of their favorite motion picture stars in person.

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Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Marie Dressler beneath
a certain lamppost at the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, D.C.  [Stills from 111-H-1133, Reel 2 and 111-SC-7263; recent photographs courtesy of author]
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There are two lampposts along the west side of the steps—one multi-globe and one single.  I am curious as to whether it was possible to switch between the two fixture styles, because the multi-globe post looks to be in the correct position in relation to the steps.  [Still from 111-SC-7263; recent photograph courtesy of author]
Beneath what appears to have been one of the original globe lampposts still standing along the west side of the steps (the Corcoran Gallery of Art, serving as a landmark, is visible across 17th Street in several photographs from the National Archives’ collection), Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Marie Dressler reveled in stirring patriotic enthusiasm throughout the District like never before.  As you can see in newsreel footage from the Archives’ motion picture collection [below/111-H-1133, Reel 2], one by one, they rose to their feet and did their best to encourage everyone to support the war effort by purchasing Liberty bonds; Pickford coaxed, Fairbanks charmed, Dressler cajoled, and Chaplin—leading a band in the process—captivated.  How could the crowd resist?

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Douglas Fairbanks at the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, D.C.,
Third Liberty Loan Campaign, April 6, 1918  [111-SC-7267]
Over the course of that one day, Douglas Fairbanks (who sold his first Liberty bond to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt), Charlie Chaplin, and Marie Dressler reportedly sold over $100,000 worth of bond subscriptions apiece, while Mary Pickford—having collected the receipt for a $1 million subscription from a major Washington bank—raised a staggering $1.6 million by mid-afternoon.[1]

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Mary Pickford at the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, D.C.,
Third Liberty Loan Campaign, April 6, 1918  [111-SC-7270]
Held the day after the newest bond issuance was announced (offering $3 billion in bonds at 4.5%) and on the first anniversary of our entrance into the war, this celebration was considered the formal launch of the Third Liberty Loan Campaign.  Between April 1917 and September 1918, there were four such campaigns followed by a Victory Liberty Loan issuance in 1919, and through a combination of all five, over $21.5 billion was raised to help finance World War I.  The start of the highly-publicized third drive, however, wasn’t the beginning of Douglas or Mary’s association with the cause, as they—along with Marie Dressler—had been involved with the Second Liberty Loan Campaign, as well, but their devotion to the war effort reached a high point in April 1918 when they teamed up with Charlie Chaplin and embarked on a series of similar bond rallies across the country (Douglas out in the Midwest, Mary in the East, and Charlie in the South) at the special request of William G. McAdoo, the Secretary of the Treasury.[2]

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Charlie Chaplin at the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington, D.C.,
Third Liberty Loan Campaign, April 6, 1918  [111-SC-7268]
On September 28, 1918, as the Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign began with yet another bond issuance ($6.9 billion in bonds at 4.25%), the trio continued to volunteer their time to Allied support whenever possible.  In the interest of the new campaign, Douglas even took part in a publicity stunt in which he asked to be flown from Washington to New York City to see if he could find someone to match a one-million-dollar bond pledge made by Bernard “Barney” Baruch, the chairman of the War Industries Board.  On October 16, the press teased that the largest piece of first-class aerial mail (at the rate of sixteen cents a pound) was about to be delivered, as Douglas boarded one of the U.S. Post Office Department’s planes in College Park, Maryland and landed that afternoon in Belmont Park, New York.[3]  As one of the stills from the Special Media Division at the National Archives notes, “Fairbanks not only matched the pledge but obtained pledges for five more [million]” before his flight back to Washington 48 hours later.

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Douglas Fairbanks with the airmail pilot who flew him from College Park, Maryland to Belmont Park, New York on his quest to get “a million to match Barney Baruch”
Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign, October [19], 1918  [165-WW-240F-5]
Having successfully completed his assignment, Douglas (shown in the footage below/111-H-1133, Reel 1) presented the bond subscriptions to Secretary McAdoo on the south steps of the Treasury building that very afternoon.[4]

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Will the Treasury steps be my next Fairbanks-inspired sightseeing adventure?  Yes, of course!  It is difficult to explain, but there is something very special about walking in the footsteps of those you admire, which is why I would love to arrange to get a tad closer to a certain lamppost, whichever one it may be out of the two.  If nothing else, my attempt to see and identify it allowed me to share my journey with you, while shining a little light on moments in history related to a few of my favorite people.  Perhaps the next time you walk by the Executive Office Building and glance up at the lights along 17th Street, you will be reminded of one right around the corner that was once just as accessible and far more crowded.  You might say it is a modest monument to a past that was not only beaming with generosity and patriotic spirit but illuminated by those who had earned our admiration by personifying both qualities—on and off the screen—so sincerely well.

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A similar “illuminating post” (although not the one!) near the 17th Street entrance to the State, War, and Navy Building  [Stills from 111-H-1133, Reel 2; recent photograph courtesy of author]

Katie Pratt, Motion Picture Preservation Lab, U.S. National Archives
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[1] “Move Stars Move the Movie Fans to Buy Third Liberty Loan Bonds,” The Sunday Star, April 7, 1918, 20.; “Mary Sells $1,600,000,” The Washington Herald, April 7, 1918, 2.

[2] “Movie Stars to Aid Liberty Loan Drive,” The Wichita Daily Eagle, April 7, 1918, 14.

[3] “Doug Fairbanks on a Flying Trip,” The Evening Star, October 16, 1918, 2.

[4] “Fairbanks Coming with Loan Money,” The Washington Times, Oct. 18, 1918, 1.

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3 thoughts on “An “Illuminating Post”: Silent Stars Support the Third and Fourth Liberty Loan Campaigns

  1. You cannot discuss the Fourth Liberty Loan campaign and leave out the impact it had on the spread of the Spanish Flu pandemic in the Fall of 1918. In Philadelphia, in particular, a Liberty Loan parade led to a mass epidemic, as documented in this Smithsonian article, “Philadelphia threw a World War I parade that gave thousands of onlookers the flu” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/philadelphia-threw-wwi-parade-gave-thousands-onlookers-flu-180970372/?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=socialmedia Similar gatherings in San Francisco and there cities had smaller but similar results. The War and the flu were inseparable 100 years ago as I document in my book “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War” (May 2018, Holt)

  2. “Then and Now” comparison photography has become a popular subject for historians. For example, local author Peter Penczer has published a book on Washington, D.C. which uses this technique, and comparison books on other major American cities have been done, as well. For Civil War photography, see William A. Frassanito’s books on the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields. “After the Battle” magazine, published in Great Britain, does the same for World War II photographs.

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