Peek-a-Boos Need You!

03 January 2014

Empire and Globalism | History | War and Conflict

What a treat it was to dive into a world of adventure when I was a child; of course, I still do that as an adult, with many novels by my bedside, but bright illustrations and light-hearted storytelling certainly played a huge part in whisking me away to a land of fantasy and endless possibility. For children during World War 1, the topic of war was ever-present in the classroom as well as in the comfort and cosiness of home. Whilst flicking through hundreds of fascinating items for our forthcoming First World War resource


The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment, a children’s storybook entitled The Peek-a-Boos in Camp really stood out, with its soft-lined, colourful illustrations of Peek-a-boo characters partaking in an ‘exciting’ war camp adventure.

Published in 1915, themes such as enlistment, recruitment marches, British Red Cross nurses and soggy trench experiences all come alive in the story, and the young reader would immediately be immersed in the tale of the Peek-a-boos’ ‘frantic excitement’ of becoming a soldier, and move on to read about the camp becoming ‘bubble-and-squeak with fuss and fun’ when their home-made soldier’s outfits arrive.

The coupling of commercial products and war themes allowed some entertainment products to be used for more than just escapism and fantasy. It was a time when a wide array of media forms aimed to effectively penetrate the public consciousness; where patriotism, as well as the explanation and justification of war, was top of the bill and was intentionally targeted at women and children. Entertainment value was key, as was the effective promotion of propaganda – which is where publishing companies were used to contribute to the social propaganda machine.

The positive, light-hearted tone and injection of humour in the writing of this particular book would certainly have served as a strong tool for concealing the harsh and grim reality of war, ultimately allowing children to support the war and fear the enemy. Toys, games and books were all essential products that empowered the government to encourage children to donate money to the war effort; jolly, upbeat language and rosy pictures certainly helped them to achieve this goal! Part of a popular series of children’s books, the Peek-a-boo characters would have been well-known to children, so it was a perfect brand within which to incorporate wartime stories and messages.

With the storybook’s main message being ‘Join To-Day!’, it ultimately spoke to adults too, where messages such as ‘King and Country Need You’ could be in large text within an illustration. Products for children and adults alike had to be both pervasive and persuasive, so war messages would easily have been communicated to both during bedtime storytelling! There were even decorative plates and mugs that accompanied this book, depicting the characters in a soldiers’ march.
The Peek-a-Boos in Camp storybook, alongside many more fascinating propaganda materials, posters and objects, is drawn from the fantastic Robert Opie collection, and will feature in the forthcoming digital resource
The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment, publishing October 2013. 

About the Author

Sarah Mellowes

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew Digital, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections for the arts and humanities. Since joining in October 2012, I have primarily worked on our First World War portal, featuring items sourced from leading libraries and archives around the world.