Military · Monuments · State Specific Research

The Tale of Two Statues – The Strange Story of Viquesney’s WWI ‘Spirit’ Monuments – Those Places Thursday

If you take a walk through one of the many memorial parks in the United States, you’ll find monuments of every size, shape, and material.  Some are as simple as a large stone with a bronze plaque.  Others are grand and opulent buildings constructed of rare materials and marble.  The better known monuments celebrate the Revolutionary War, World War II, and in recent events, the Civil War.  There are more monuments of course, even in our country’s rather short two hundred odd year history, her citizens managed to scrape up a breathtaking collection of commemorative statues throughout the country.  From the Spanish-American War Monument in Arlington Cemetery, to the Great Swamp Fight Monument commemorating King Philip’s War in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, to the Military Working Dog Teams National Monument in Bexar County Texas, our country has a fascination with erecting stone and metal edifices as money and placement become available.

Somewhere in the muddle of towering figures and humble markers, is the story of two remarkable World War I statues by E. M. Viquesney.  Born Ernest Moore Viquesney on August 5, 1876, the American sculptor capitalized on then Secretary of War Newton Baker’s push for communities across the nation to erect memorials and monuments to honor Great War veterans.  Using a clever combination of patriotic marketing and self promotion, Viquesney mass produced his famous ‘Spirit of the American Doughboy‘ statue for towns and cities during the 1920s and 1930s.

The ‘Doughboy’ statue is anything but a sedate rendition of the past.  Take it off its stone pedestal, and you’ll see a fierce and hardened face of a man in battle, moving toward a target with a grenade held aloft in his right hand and a bayoneted gun clutched with his left.  At his feet are barbed wire and wood, potent symbols of the wide wasteland fraught by modern warfare.  His legs are protected by puttees, the recognizable ankle to calf wrappings wound tightly and spirally around each lower limb.  This is a man of action immortalized in a moment, his service in America’s first European based war immortalized in quiet parks, town squares, and college campuses across the country.

According to Doughboy enthusiast and researcher Earl Goldsmith, the ‘Doughboy’ statues are “believed to be the focal points of over ten-percent of U. S. World War I memorial statues.  Additionally, some believe that except for the Statue of Liberty, Viquesney’s Doughboy replicas have collectively been seen by more people than any sculpture in the U. S., even though many don’t realize they have seen them.”

Viquesney’s ‘Doughboy’ is a truly prolific statue.  Although no final accounting of this statue is fully known, there are over 140 known statues scattered throughout the United States, many of which are plotted and mapped by a memorial project sponsored by the World War I Centennial Commission.  Ever the salesman, Viquesney created a prolific army of miniature ‘Doughboy’ statues to sell to a patriotic public for as little as $5 a piece.

Doughboy ad 1

Given how numerous these monuments are around the country,  it’s strange how these statues are rarely mentioned in local guidebooks, or on historical tours.  In the years I’ve lived in the area, I honestly can’t recall seeing one in person apart from a particularly fine example in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Several of these statues are now the subject of a large scale restoration project to protect and preserve the monuments of the First World War.

over the top vs doughboy
Viquesney and his ‘Doughboy’ statue on the left; John Paulding  and his ‘Over The Top’ statue on the right

Viquesney’s ‘Doughboy’ has endured at the possible expense of another Great War statue entitled ‘Over The Top’ by John Paulding.  The two statues are uncanny in their similarities, the most obvious of which is the absence of a grenade in the hand of Paulding’s statue.  The feud erupted into a full blown copyright lawsuit and a prolonged advertising war.  Viquesney’s potent combination of branded marketing and lower costs ensured his statue would rise to prominence.  There are around 50 of Paulding’s “Over the Top” memorials scattered around the country, and its possible many of them are misidentified as one of Viquesney’s army of ‘Doughboys’.

I was in Naperville last Saturday dropping my sister off at the train station, which abuts the small green park of Burlington Square.  I nearly drove past the ‘Doughboy’ statue in the square, and luckily, I found a nearby parking spot to ditch the car and take a look at the statue up close.

IMG-7943

What I didn’t realize until I turned around, was another statue standing stoically across on the other side of the square.  Perched atop of a tall granite column was a far different figure commemorating the Great War.

Where the ‘Doughboy’ statue may be the best known example of Viquesney’s artistic output, it is his fantastic ‘Spirit of the American Navy’ statue which has become the rare jewel of WWI memorials.  Designed by Viquesney in 1927, it was intended to be a companion piece to the already popular ‘Doughboy’ statue.  Like its brother the ‘Sailorboy’ statue features a male figure holding a naval hat high in the air with its right hand, while the left arm is held tight at the waist.  At the sailor’s legs, a large length of rope is organized smartly in its round spool. Only eight of these statues are known to exist.  One is in the possession of a private collector.  Seven of them (and one variant model) are erected in public areas across several states.  It’s auspicious then, that one of these rare statues is readily accessible near downtown Naperville.

Naperville acquired the ‘Spirit of the American Navy’ from an antique store in Pennwater, Michigan before it was erected in Burlington Square in 2013.  The antique store owners purchased ‘Sailorboy’ from a Chicago junkyard in the mid 1990s.  No former location information on this statue has been found.

The difference between the two ‘spirit’ statues is striking.  Where the ‘Doughboy’ is focused and fierce, ‘Sailorboy’ seems bright and optimistic by comparison.  The soldier is frozen in a moment of hardship and a rough form of bravery.  The sailor by contrast seems carefree and welcoming, as if the hat held aloft is being used to catch the attention of a far off friend.  There’s a lightness of heart from the naval statue, a celebratory air which is noticeably lacking in its sibling.  ‘Sailorboy’ seems almost too cheery to be a monument.  Its enthusiasm and lightheartedness distracts from the reality of the war which had just been fought.

Maybe it is this stark contrast between the two figures which when they were created, made them companion pieces in memorializing the experiences of World War I.  As both were created and erected in the two decades following the Great War, perhaps Viquesney wanted to celebrate the differences between war and victory.  What he may not have anticipated was how the doughboy statue would come to symbolize a war which subsequent generations would be hard pressed to understand or rationalize.  World War I isn’t a war most Americans really know.  It’s largely forgotten and unmarked during the window of its centennial by the public, even when there are historians, lecturers, and a highly organized commission fighting hard to bring this history to the consciousness of most Americans.

So it is ironic, that one of the most prolific of our American wartime monuments is also it’s most forgotten.  The ‘Doughboy’ and ‘Sailorboy’ statues in Naperville are prime examples.  Even with their proximity to a busy commuter train station, they’re largely ignored by the hundreds of people walking through and driving by Burlington Square.

But they are a delight to see in person.  So when you have a moment, and you’re finished watching our library’s five part WWI Military Genealogy webinar series, take a field trip to Burlington Square in Naperville.  Pick a warm weekend when the sun is shining, grab a few friends and meet at the park for a picnic.  Take some time to eat outside, share stories with your friends, and visit the monuments.  It’s a great way to connect the present with the past, and it just may start a conversation about the lost legacy of the Great War and how we can bring this dimly lit history back into the public consciousness.

See You At the Library!
Debra

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