Running Enemy Number One


On this rainy Saturday, our industrious trio of fall interns here at have shown up at the clubhouse after their morning run (the 8-mile Brooklyn-to-Madhattan-to-Williamsburg bridges route) ready for work. We are starting on a new project today, poring through the National Archives online catalog in search of running-related images. (Because, why not?)

After drying off and getting into après-run gear, the crew grabbed some mango smoothies and bacon, egg & cheese sandies from the club canteen. Then we all settled down in the lounge with our laptops. It didn’t take us long to unearth an intriguing propaganda poster from the World War II-era U.S. Office of War Information. A poster with a strong ANTI-running message . . .

The image is identified in fine print along its bottom border as a “Navy Department Safety Poster.” With a grabby red-and-black color scheme and bold composition the poster broadcasts its theme loud and clear: Hey, you nitwit: Slow down! It’s dangerous to run where you can damage or destroy important stuff being created for the war effort! 

The poster begs the question why the Navy felt the need to spread this message in the first place. Were there really all that many overall-wearing factory workers tearing full tilt across production and warehouse floors? Must have been a problem or they wouldn’t have created this, right?

At first glance, the artist’s choice to give this dashing dude an angry expression seems an interesting decision, making the figure look more like a fleeing criminal than some eager beaver jogging from one place to another. And running with his eyes closed, as he seems to be, of course increases the likelihood of tripping on a box of munitions packed inside this crate labeled HANDLED WITH CARE.

But the more we stare at and discuss this image, the more we can’t help seeing some ugly wartime propaganda hidden in plain sight. There seems to be more to the “angry face” than we initially thought.

For instance, we can’t help concluding that the poster artist is making deliberate use of standard cartooning shorthand in racist caricatures of “Asian faces” widely used in American WWII propaganda posters to depict the country’s Japanese enemy–i.e., the slanting eyebrow and thin slash below it denoting an eye.

Also, there is no way that any War Department poster artist could ever compose an image with the right-angled Z-shape formed by the runner’s two arms without meaning to suggest the Nazi swastika. In fact, the artist has provided prompts for the viewer’s eye to unconsciously complete the other half of this symbol of evil simply by tracing the strong line that starts as a horizontal at the runner’s left knee, cuts in a vertical up through his chest, neck, and head, and then angles sharply horizontal at the top white border.

So, using his or her bag of tricks, the artist has drawn direct connection between this bumbling runner and our German and Japanese adversaries. This runner is anything but a harmless trotter. In his dangerous dashing, he is little better than the Axis enemies of state, sabotaging his own country’s war effort for the sake of getting somewhere too fast.

This dark side of what at first seemed an amusing workplace safety poster ended up bumming us out.

So it was a relief when we came across this lively 1939 illustration of a quintet of racers by Marshall Davis created for an arithmetic workbook in the “Camp Life” series published by the government for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal federal work relief program. No dark side here, just a fantastic little picture of a footrace where running is strictly NOT forbidden.