Propagating Propaganda Franklin Barrett’s Red, White, and Blue Liberty Bond Carp
Toward the end of World War I, as the US peddled hard its Liberty Bonds for the war effort, goldfish dealer Franklin Barrett bred a stars-and-stripes-colored carp: a living, swimming embodiment of patriotism. Laurel Waycott uncovers the story of this “Liberty Bond Fish” and the wider use of animals in propaganda of the time.
March 17, 2021
In April 1918, subscribers to Aquatic Life opened the latest issue to find a large illustration of “The Liberty Bond Fish”, the “famous red, white, and blue carp” owned by Philadelphia goldfish breeder Franklin Barrett.1 While the illustration is regrettably in black and white, it shows a handsome specimen of carp with delicately outlined scales and variegated fins.
Barrett’s creation and its name were products of his time and place: April 1918 marked both the one-year anniversary of the US entry into World War I and the start of the third Liberty Loan drive, a massive effort to encourage US citizens to fund the government’s war expenses by purchasing bonds. But if Liberty Bonds were primarily a vehicle for financially backing the war, why create a Liberty Bond fish? Of what use was a star-spangled carp to the war effort?
Propagation and propaganda share the same root: the latter term has its origins in the name of the congregatio de propaganda fide, a committee of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for “propagating the faith” in foreign missions. Barrett made this propagation literal by enrolling living organisms into politics. The nationalistic fish was an overt attempt to take national symbolism and impose it onto the genetics of the animal. By breeding Liberty Bond carp, Barrett turned the reproductive power of fish into a technology to reproduce the notion of “America” itself.2 To understand how the red, white, and blue creature came to be, we must look at the role of propaganda in the effort to get Americans emotionally invested in World War I.
Franklin Barrett would have been familiar to the readers of Aquatic Life, a magazine catering to aquarium hobbyists and professionals. He had been a major figure in the Philadelphia aquarium industry since the first decade of the twentieth century. He started breeding goldfish in the backyard of his Philadelphia row house as a sideline to factory work, and by 1916, was selling twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of fish every year.3 Barrett was among a group of breeders in the first decades of the twentieth century who propagated “fancy” goldfish, like those with pop-eyes or fantails, from varieties developed in Japan and China.
Humans have long interfered with the reproduction of plants and animals, but breeders in the early twentieth century, emboldened by the emerging science of heredity, vastly expanded the scope of these traditional practices in an effort to “improve” a wide variety of organisms. Like horticulturist Luther Burbank, who developed numerous novel varieties of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants by systematically crossing existing cultivars, Barrett and his fellow goldfish breeders combined selective breeding with a eugenically-inflected zeal for developing new, better, and stronger traits.4
One of the traits that Barrett and his fellow fish breeders were particularly interested in cultivating was the color blue. While red and white were familiar colors for goldfish, blue was much more unusual. The “blue” that Barrett sought manifested as a subtle pale lavender tint underlying the flecks of color on “calico” goldfish, or as a deep, all-over navy. Barrett had spent considerable effort breeding fish whose bodies were entirely blue, claiming to have bred the only blue lion-headed goldfish in the United States.5 The interest in blue fish preceded the American entry into the war, but once the United States was engaged in the conflict, Barrett saw an opportunity to use his expertise for a patriotic, and potentially lucrative, new purpose.
It is unclear how, exactly, Barrett was able to breed the Liberty Bond Fish. It was not a goldfish, but an unspecified variety of carp — though Barrett was likely able to transfer his expertise, as goldfish and carp are both part of the Cyprinidae family. It is possible that the patriotic fish was derived from the Asagi breed of Japanese koi, which have navy-blue scales and fins patterned with cream and orangey-red blotches. If that was the case, then Barrett’s creation was not so much a new breed as a new brand — a tactic that Barrett had relied upon before.
Franklin Barrett set himself apart from his fellow Philadelphia fish breeders with his canny marketing skills. His eye-catching advertisements, often featuring the drawing of a pop-eyed goldfish staring entreatingly at the viewer, appeared in most issues of Aquatic Life and other aquarium periodicals. Unlike his peers, he gave his prize-winning fish catchy names, such as the rotund lion-headed goldfish called “Bill Taft”, in reference to the portly twenty-seventh American president, and another named “Queen Lil”, possibly in homage to Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i.6 Barrett often publicized extraordinary asking prices for his best fish, such as the one thousand dollar price tag (approximately seventeen thousand in today’s dollars) that he attached to a goldfish named “King Bul-bul”. Whether or not he ever received this amount did not deter public fascination with the high valuation. The Liberty Bond carp, which Barrett priced at three hundred dollars apiece (about five thousand dollars today), was one in a long line of smartly branded fish designed to generate publicity for Barrett’s business.7
It was clever marketing to tie in the fish to Liberty Bonds, which were garnering huge public attention in April 1918. Designed to bridge the billions-wide gap between tax revenue and the immense costs of the war, the bonds allowed the government to borrow money from its citizens, with a fixed rate and date for repayment. The third Liberty Loan Campaign was launched on April 6, 1918, when movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin held an astoundingly successful rally near the White House lawn, exhorting the public to buy bonds. (By fall of 1918, during the fourth and penultimate Liberty Bond Drive, such massive rallies became deadly super-spreading events of the influenza pandemic. A loan drive parade in Philadelphia was responsible for forty-five thousand new influenza cases — a confluence of patriotism, coercion, and public health that sounds eerily familiar.)
While Liberty Bonds were a financial investment, the Liberty Loan drives did not rely solely on an appeal to prudent money management. Rather, the government’s plea was bluntly emotional. The massive propaganda campaign, consisting of posters, newsreels, and radio advertisements, prompted Americans to take action by evoking sympathy, generosity, and fear. Like the fish in Barrett’s advertisements, many addressed viewers with a direct gaze. Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, soldiers, children, and the sun itself entreated poster viewers to act immediately.
The coercion of patriotism was not subtle: one poster asked “Are you 100% American? Prove it! Buy U.S. Government Bonds”. Bullying and intimidation buoyed the Liberty Bond drives, where participation was grounded in an imperative to demonstrate one’s unquestionable support for the war effort. The Boy Scouts of America enrolled children in the campaign by turning scouts into bond salesmen, while adults who could or would not buy bonds were publicly shamed and humiliated.8 The Liberty Bond drives were therefore an extremely effective mechanism for manipulating emotions and turning feelings into cash for the US government.
One way that propaganda campaigns in Europe and the United States activated public sentiment was by using animals. By depicting the nations at war as animals, propaganda artists bred sympathy for allies and fear of foes. A series of French postcards, for example, show the Allied Powers as elegant butterflies with the faces of beautiful young women. Dressed in national costume and sporting wings tinted in the colors of their national flags, the graceful creatures are gentle and fragile. The Central Powers, on the other hand, were depicted as stinging wasps and scaly beetles, with the faces of stern-faced old men, each symbolically slain with a sword and pinned to paper as if it were a dead specimen in an entomology collection.
Dogs, alternatively sweet and threatening, were a favorite of propaganda artists. They were particularly useful for naturalizing the differences between political powers. Identifying different breeds of dogs with geographical (and therefore political and racial) regions was a relatively new phenomenon. Many of the dog breeds we recognize today have their origins in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when a burgeoning interest in dog breeding prompted the formation of kennel clubs in Britain and the United States. The creation of breeding standards essentialized the physical form of different regional types, prioritizing aesthetics over health or utility. These phenotypic characteristics lent themselves to caricature, making dogs excellent propaganda motifs. A British postcard from World War I depicts the Allies as an army of puppy figurines, with a solid and stubborn English bulldog at the center, accompanied by a bright-eyed Irish setter, and what we can only assume is a French poodle dressed like Marianne, the allegorical embodiment of France, complete with a red Phrygian cap and blue sash. The assembled army of puppies glossed over the devastation of war, turning the conflict into something undeniably sympathetic and cuddly.
Just as sympathetic animals activated feelings of affinity toward allies, unfamiliar and aggressive animals worked to dehumanize enemies. A widely printed American enlistment poster depicted Germany as a raving gorilla, setting foot on American soil after leaving Europe in shambles. His prisoner, a half-naked white woman representing American liberty, covers her eyes in shame. The gorilla too makes eye contact, beholding the viewer with deranged pinhole eyes, suggesting that it is coming for us next. Prefiguring the 1933 movie monster King Kong, which historians have largely interpreted as a metaphor for white racist fears about the violence and sexuality of Black masculinity, the monster draws on stereotypes about apes that were also used to dehumanize Black Americans.9 Unlike puppies or butterflies, which would never be confused with humans, apes are human-like, but lesser-than. It is the ape’s proximity to humanness that shows just how unhuman it is.
Depicting nations as different species or breeds built on the ideas of race emerging from the eugenics movement, implying that there were fundamental and natural differences between allies and foes. The nationalized animal avatars had the power to make the warring nations seem inherently innocent or intrinsically aggressive. It obfuscated the war for what it actually was: a mess of Homo sapiens divided along political lines.
Fish also had a role to play in propaganda efforts, despite their generally less charismatic affect. After the American entry into the conflict, postcard producer S. E. Clark published the “Patriotic Fantasy Animal Series”, depicting animals embodying the stars and stripes. The National Aquarium shows a tank full of robust and vibrant finny patriots, joyfully sporting the American flag.
Franklin Barrett made this idea flesh through the Liberty Bond Fish. Unlike the animals populating propaganda postcards, this was a tangible, living thing. The red, white, and blue color scheme was bred into the fish as a hereditary trait of the animal. While dog breeds had come to be associated with the nations that created them, Barrett’s breeding practice worked in the opposite direction: by injecting national symbolism into the genetics of the animal itself.
We do not know what Franklin Barrett did with the proceeds from the sale of the Liberty Bond Fish: whether he invested them in actual Liberty Bonds or kept the profits. Other plant and animal breeders created “Liberty Bond” varieties after the conclusion of the final loan drive in 1919, suggesting that the name was a strategic branding choice rather than a fundraising effort. In 1919, the Lou S. Darling Seed Company held a contest to rename their 1912 seedling potato, selecting “Liberty Bond” as the winner, since potato and bond were seen to share key characteristics: reliable producers easily convertible to cash.10 Southern California floriculturist J. J. Broomall introduced a “Liberty Bond Dahlia” in 1922. Unlike Barrett’s red, white, and blue creation, the flower was “a blending of buff, bronze, and salmon shades”.11 The appeal of these varieties, whether animal or vegetable, traded on the positive associations that had been insistently linked to Liberty Bonds during the war years; use of the name allowed these breeders to cash in on the emotional manipulation already forged by the propaganda campaigns.
Despite the profits that he might have made, Barrett’s patriotic creation was not an entirely cynical cash-grab. The survival of his own lineage was invested in the outcome of the war: in July 1918, his only son, Royden, registered for the draft. Fortunately, Royden came home after the conclusion of the war and joined the family business. When industrial breeding operations in the American Midwest came to dominate the goldfish trade of the 1930s, Franklin Barrett shifted course yet again and opened an art studio, teaching classes until his death in 1958 at the age of eighty-seven.12
And the Liberty Bond Fish itself? The fate of the actual creatures of this breed is unknown, and its name disappeared from Barrett’s advertisements after the war’s conclusion. But while it lived, this star-spangled carp did nothing less than propagate the notion of a national American identity in living, swimming form. The emotional pleas of propaganda coupled with the affective immediacy of animals had instructed Americans how to feel about the war. By buying Liberty Bond flowers, potatoes, and fish, they could also feel patriotic about reaching for their wallets.