Ghosts in the Machines

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Ghosts in the Machines

2011-06-24 09:13



How about a quick game of word association?  What's the first thing that pops into your head when I say the word...


Maybe you're imagining those mean-spirited, sharp-toothed creatures that result from getting your mogwai wet or feeding him after midnight.  Or maybe you're picturing that infamous car from the 1970s.  Or perhaps you're thinking of that Twilight Zone episode involving a “gremlin” that took flight and was only visible to the terror of a single passenger.  Well, the eight gremlins I found while processing HSP’s collection of World War II propaganda (Collection 3335) bear the most resemblance to evil, mechanically-inclined versions of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs.

The folklore of mischievous “gremlins” (imps, devils, spirits, what have you) has been around for centuries, but the modern idea of gremlins sabotaging machinery was popularized during World War II.  It all started when Britain’s Royal Air Force began experiencing unexplained mechanical problems with their aircraft.  The aviators blamed  unseen "gremlins" that supposedly wreaked havoc in the airplanes when no one was watching.  The notion took off in military circles and soldiers spread the myth of the destructive gremlins.  Reportedly, author Roald Dahl is credited with making gremlins part of everyday culture in the 1940s with his children's book The Gremlins.

These Famous Gremlins You Should Know came courtesy of the Esso Company (now a brand of ExxonMobile).  They were published in 1943 and each was associated with particular car part or system, such as the tires, electrical system, or motor.  On the backs of the prints are descriptions of the kinds of  hassles they brought upon unsuspecting cars.  Of course, Esso promised that with regular visits to their dealers, they'd keep your car free of the little trouble-makers. It makes sense that a home front company in the business of fixing cars would utilize the "gremlin" idea  from the battlefront to boost sales -- these images probably connected regular citizens to soldiers in that they were all fighting the same war and facing the same problems with their vehicles, be they cars or bombers.

HSP's World War II propaganda collection (Collection 3335) contains a rich assortment of posters, advertisements, cards, and other ephemera from the era.  The other five prints from this series have also been digitized, so if you'd like to see the rest of the gremlin gang, head on over to HSP's digital library.

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