Sunday, May 5, 2013

World War I propaganda fiction:
"At the Defense of Pittsburgh"

This is the cover of the 1916 hardcover "At the Defense of Pittsburgh, or The Struggle to Save America's 'Fighting Steel' Supply." In the genre of early 20th century juvenile fiction, it stands out as a notable and intriguing series.

It was written by chemist/author Harrie Irving Hancock (1866?-1922) and published by Henry Altemus Company of Philadelphia.1

The book is the third title in 1916's four-volume "Conquest of the United States" series by Hancock and Altemus. All four books had the same paste-down illustration on the cover. The titles are:

  • Invasion of the United States
  • In the Battle for New York
  • At the Defense of Pittsburgh
  • Making the Last Stand for Old Glory

Elizabeth S. Frank published an article in 1997 titled "Advocating War Preparedness: H. Irving Hancock's Conquest of the United States Series." The abstract nicely sums up the series:
"The Conquest of the United States Series is a propaganda piece for the war preparedness movement, which preceded America's entry into World War I. Written in 1916 by popular juvenile author, H. Irving Hancock, the series follows the boys of Gridley in their fight against the 1920 invasion of the United States by Germany. From the shores of Massachusetts until the final victory outside of Pittsburgh in 1921, the series incorporates most of the arguments popular in the war preparedness movement. The assertion was that the United States was not ready to fight a modern war in terms of personnel, military equipment, or national will."
So, Hancock's series could be called propaganda fiction or even "retroactive alternate history" — something that an author such as Harry Turtledove might write. But the best label for this type of series is invasion literature, a genre that had its peak between 1871 and 1914 and is thought to have influenced public attitudes toward various conflicts.

Here is more about the series, from Wikipedia:
"Hancock's four-book series ... depicted a fictional invasion of the USA by Germany in 1920-21 — reflecting, and to some degree helping to intensify, the shift of American public opinion toward getting involved in The First World War. ... This kind of books were credited — by some politicians at the time and by historians and researchers later — with intensifying bellicose public attitudes in various countries and contributing to escalation and war. ...

"[In the series] the Germans ... launch a surprise attack in 1920, capture Boston despite heroic resistance by 'Uncle Sam's boys', overrun all of New England and New York and reach as far as Pittsburgh — but are at last are gloriously crushed by fresh American forces. ...

"Hancock's plot has a basic implausibility in that it assumes either an overwhelming German victory over the British, giving them mastery of the seas, or a British 'friendly neutrality' and a free hand to invade America. Further, it assumes the German Navy to be capable of utterly defeating the US Navy, followed by ferrying no less than a million German troops across the Atlantic and keeping them supplied for years-long hard fighting. The experience of the first two years of the actual war, at the time of writing, already conclusively proved the Kaiserliche Marine manifestly incapable of anything remotely of the kind."

Dale Cozort gives more details about the series on his Alternate History website, and sums it up with these insights: "The broad outline of the war is so much like what actually happened between Germany and Russia 25 or so years later in World War II that it's almost uncanny. The Germans win battle after battle but the opposition moves industry out of their reach, builds up overwhelming superiority in manpower and strategic mobility, then cuts off the cream of the German army. Sounds a lot like Eastern Front World War II up through Stalingrad."

1. Henry Altemus Company has been mentioned a couple other times on Papergreat, most notably in "American flag history, compliments of Leinbach & Bro. in Reading" on July 4, 2011.


  1. Once again, a captivating glimpse into the world of ephemera! This series of books may be more historically accurate than one would think. They have a strong similarity to Kaiser Wilhelm's Operational Plan 3; drawn up in 1903, it was the planned invasion of NY and Boston by the German Imperial Navy.

    The plan was shelved in 1906 when the Germany realized it didn't have the resources to succeed.

  2. Fascinating history behind it ... and great cover art!