Image: Illustrations of children dressed in different countries' military uniforms while waving national flags. Text: 'The Little War'

The Little War

Featured Exhibition
Feb. 29, 2024 - Feb. 9, 2025 Exhibit Hall

But what about the children?


War impacts everyone; world wars, even more so. Explore the lives of children swept up by the storms of World War I while adults were fighting on the front line and supporting the war effort.

What does a world war look like to a child? For some, it was saying good-bye to their grown-ups going away to far-off lands. For others, it was holding their grown-ups’ hands as they fled their homes. Often, it was hunger and hardship.

Black and white photograph of a group of soldiers standing in a line with rifles on their soldiers in an outside field. A little white girl in a dress and coat stands in front of them with a toy rifle on her shoulder. The soldiers are laughing and smiling indulgently at her.

Photograph of a young girl holding a toy rifle. She is posing with American soldiers. Object ID: 2023.122.1

Grown-ups everywhere saw children as key to achieving victory and legacy.



Storybooks cast their childish audiences as patriotic heroes and heroines, glossing over the true horrors of war.

"The Youngest in Command"


Sheet music dedicated to four-and-a-half-year-old Thelma Dell Daniels, a pretend captain in the American Expeditionary Forces.

Object ID: 2023.147.1

Cover of a sheet music book. Text: 'The Youngest in Command / March By / Harry Heald' Image: a black and white photograph of a young girl wearing a military uniform.
Scan of a page of sheet music. Title: 'The Youngest in Command'

"Sailor Tommy"

by Florence Notter

Click on the arrows to flip through this American storybook.

Object ID: 2023.123.1

Two pages of a storybook. Left page text: 'Humpty Dumpty hammered the Gaul— / Humpty Dumpty had a big fall; / All the King's horses and all the King's men / Can't take Kaiser Billy to Paris again!' Right page illustrations: 1) A large egg-man with a mustache and German spiked helmet sits atop a wall waving a saber. 2) The wall has been collapsed. Human Allied soldiers look down through the gap laughing at the egg-man who lies smashed to pieces (and angry about it) on the ground.
Scan of two pages in a children's book. Left page text: 'RIDE-A-COCK horse, the frontier across, / To see Puffing Billy astride a high horse— / Blood on his fingers and shells for his foes, / He shall be hated wherever he goes!' Right page illustration: caricature of a German soldier riding a wooden toy horse surrounded by bombs, looming over a tiny enemy soldier on another toy horse.

"Nursery Rhymes for Fighting Times"


This British children's book contains popular nursery rhymes rewritten to mock the German military.

Object ID: 2023.226.1

Front cover of a story book. Image: illustration of a goose-stepping goose wearing a German pickelhaube (spiked) helmet and iron cross pendant, holding a rifle with its wing. Text: 'Nursery Rhymes for Fighting Times'



Toys and games valorized their country and ridiculed the enemy.

Cut-out paper doll

Dolly Dingle cut-outs like this one emphasized patriotic ideals for young girls.

Object ID: 2023.124.1

Colorful page filled with illustrations of a cartoon brunette white girl dressed in various outfits and engaged in various activities. The most prominent illustration is of her saluting while in military uniform.
Colorful page full of illustrations of a cartoon blonde white girl dressed in various outfits and doing various activities. The most prominent illustration is of her dressed in a white Red Cross nurse uniform holding up a roast turkey on a platter.
Modern photograph of a small white smock apron with a red cross on the front

Girls' Red Cross smock and cap


Child's play American Red Cross uniform made by Cynthia Nelson for her daughter Millicent Elise Nelson.

Object ID: 2021.174.1

Object ID: 2021.174.2

Modern photograph of a white bonnet-like cap with a red cross on the brim
Modern photograph of a child-sized brown military uniform jacket and pants.

Child's uniform


Child's play military uniform made by Michele J. Marcelli, a tailor in New Jersey, for his son Joseph D. Marcelli.

Object ID: 2011.50.1

Joseph D. Marcelli wearing his play uniform.

Object ID: 2011.50.2

Sepia photograph of a small white boy dressed in a play military uniform and cap, holding a United States flag that is taller than he is.

"Liberty Boy" doll

circa 1917

The "Liberty Boy" dolls were modeled after U.S. doughboys (soldiers). This doll was a gift for Helen Lucile Knipp.

Object ID: 2017.113.0

Modern photograph of a jointed doll painted to look like a blond child wearing a military uniform



Scouting organizations and community drives recruited children to help raise money and conserve resources on the home front.

Closed book with a dark grey cover illustrated with a line drawing of a girl wearing a uniform hat, shirt and skirt. Text: 'Handbook for Girl Scouts'



This handbook provided girls with instructions on how to earn badges and how they could help their country during wartime.

Object ID: 2023.118.1

Modern photograph of a circular bronze-colored pin embossed with a bald eagle holding olive branch and arrows. Text running around the edge: 'U.S. Boys' Working Reserve'



The U.S. Department of Labor issued this pin to boys who enrolled in the U.S. Boys' Working Reserve, an organization that employed boys on farms to increase food production.

Object ID: 2023.101.1

Cover of a pamphlet illustrating a young white girl in a green dress reaching up to a high shelf for a satchel labeled with a red cross. Text: 'Story of the Red Cross'



The American Red Cross published this pamphlet to educate school children on ways they could contribute to the war effort.

Object ID: 2017.79.18

Scan of an inside page. Printed text: 'THE AMERICAN RED CROSS / Junior Membership / School Activities / Story of the Red Cross'
Scan of the back of a pamphlet. Line drawing of a banner on a pole. Text within the banner: 'Name of School / City or Town / State / American Red Cross / School Auxiliary'



Properly nourished children grew up to be strong soldiers and nurses, so nutrition and diet became much more important to society.

Circular pin with an illustration of a small white child sitting in the middle. Text running along the edge: 'Child Welfare Week'



This Child Welfare Week pin was issued in Australia. Child Welfare Week was part of a larger initiative to ensure children around the world had proper nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Object ID: 2023.227.1

Poster with an illustration of a white girl in a sailor suit tossing a ball into a basketball hoop. Text: 'The Girl Reserves of the Y.W.C.A. / Help us put the Blue Triangle over the top!'


This Young Women's Christian Association poster advertises the Girl Reserves program which encouraged girls to join the World War I effort by participating in patriotic work.

Object ID: 2023.127.1



Propagandists and relief committees played up stories of war orphans to tug at the heartstrings and pocketbooks of millions.

Oval pin with a green background. Illustrated with drawings of a woman and two children. Text along the top edge: 'Fatherless Children of France'
Back of an oval pin. Text: '10¢ a day / $3 a month / $36.50 a year / Saves a child for France'



A small pin issued in support of the aid organization The Fatherless Children of France.

Object ID: 2023.102.1

Impressionable young minds were learning a clear lesson: loyalty and commitment will win the war.

Molded by the first truly global conflict, the children of WWI grew into the generation that would both inflict and endure profound hardship, economic depression and world war in their turn: the Greatest Generation.

The Little War is created for children and their grown-ups to understand the Great War from a child’s perspective, using imaginative play, original toys and games, photos and other artifacts from the time period. The exhibition text is offered at two separate reading levels to ensure accessibility and comprehension. Children and adults can further explore the themes of the exhibition in a small hands-on “living room” featuring WWI-era children’s books and contemporary literature, as well as games and puzzles for play. The Little War is appropriate for all ages to discover a lesser-known part of WWI as they journey through childhood in wartime.

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