Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

11 June 2013

J. Montgomery Flagg and Uncle Sam

Uncle sam

If you’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of the Library in the last month or so, you can’t fail to have seen the accusatory pointing figure of Uncle Sam urging you to come to see our exhibition Propaganda: power and persuasion.  And if do make it in to the exhibition (which, of course, we hope you do), you will find an original World War I Uncle Sam poster (kindly lent to us), with the familiar exhortation to enlist: I WANT YOU for U.S. ARMY.

The image is by J. Montgomery Flagg (1877–1960) and first appeared on the cover of the 6 July 1916 issue of Leslie’s Weekly, with the title ‘What are you doing for preparedness?’ The recruiting poster was printed the following year, 1917.  Flagg had a precocious talent for drawing. He sold his first piece to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas at the age of 12, and by 16 he was already regularly supplying material to both Life and Judge magazines. He came from a fairly well-to-do New York family and studied briefly in both England and France. After travelling around with his new wife in the early 1900s, he settled in New York and enjoyed great success as a commercial artist. Known mostly as an illustrator, he also published both satirical and more risqué material, and later wrote scripts for films during several periods in Hollywood. He drew cartoons which lampooned advertising slogans (e.g., he depicted a hungry lion with the caption ‘I’d walk a mile for a camel!’), marriage, politics, prohibition and more or less anything. Flagg also worked as a portraitist, – his wit, good looks and talent making him popular with, amongst others, the Hollywood celebrities of the day. In his 1946 autobiography Roses and Buckshots, he presents himself as a bohemian, eschewing convention, and he enjoyed a notorious reputation for his numerous affairs. Almost the complete opposite of Norman Rockwell, Flagg revelled in the urban life. According to Susan E. Meyer, he 'was not only an artist of his time, but a participant in the life he depicted… He captured the spirit and personality of the first half of this century in his illustrations, in his writings, in his films, and in the way he lived.’  But it is for his work in support of the war effort, and one poster in particular, that he is now most remembered.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Flagg was appointed military artist of New York State by Charles S. Whitman, the Governor at the time. The notion of ‘Uncle Sam’ as a personification of the federal government predates Flagg’s image, although there is some debate on the origin of the term. Historical sources reference a Samuel Wilson (1766-1854), a meat packer who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812. Wilson used to stamp his barrels of beef with US, standing, of course, for United States. But the well-liked Wilson soon came to be known as ‘Uncle Sam,’ and it wasn’t long before the name gained the now familiar wider meaning. Early illustrators and cartoonists, such as Thomas Nast, had tended to depict Uncle Sam as an old man wearing a stars and stripes suit, but Flagg’s image is altogether more vigorous. His pose is of course inspired by Alfred Leet’s military recruiting poster of 1914 featuring Lord Kitchener (although Flagg would never confirm or deny the link). But what you might not know is that Flagg used his own face as the model for Uncle Sam. A staggering 4 million copies of the poster were printed between 1917 and 1918, making it the most popular poster of all time.  Flagg was a member of the first Civilian Preparedness Committee organised in New York in 1917, and also served on the Committee of Pictorial Publicity (which was organised under the federal government’s Committee on Public Information). He went on to produce over 40 works in support of the war effort, including other well-known designs, such as Wake up America and Tell that to the Marines! Other activities included offering a free portrait to anyone who purchased a $1000 liberty bond, and writing and supervising the production of American Red Cross and U.S. Marine films.

The popularity of Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster resulted in its adaption and re-issue for World War II (400,000 copies printed). Flagg presented a copy to President Roosevelt and told him the story of using his own face. Roosevelt was impressed – ‘I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.’ (Flagg in fact was also to produce a poster for Roosevelt’s re-election campaign).

Although there have been numerous representations of Uncle Sam over the years, it is Flagg’s that has been the most enduring, his own face providing a personal face for the government to enable it to mobilise its people, to tell them to enlist, to buy bonds, and to help them to understand what was needed of them during wartime. Popular as the image was with many, the exhortation to duty and sacrifice did not sit well with everyone – some posters were defaced, leading a group of New York women to urge Congress to make the defacement of war posters a federal crime (– for a compelling account of how the relationship between the American government and its people was re-made during WWI and the impact on civil rights, see Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the making of the modern American citizen, Oxford University Press, 2008. British Library shelfmark YC.2009.a.22).

And the afterlife of the image has been very interesting. Its copyright-free status has resulted in it being used to advertise everything from cigarettes to laxatives; it has been enlisted as anti-American propaganda by other nations, and most notably perhaps, the image was given a rather different ‘reverse’ face and appearance during the anti-Vietnam war campaign.

For more on the whirlwind life of Flagg see Susan E. Meyer’s entertaining and copiously illustrated James Montgomery Flagg, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974. British Library shelfmark X.423/2209



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