Although cartoonist Thomas Nast had given Uncle Sam a familiar look, the personification of the United States government was aged, colorized, and seemingly animated by a famous magazine illustrator who’s last name was, appropriately enough, Flagg.
James Montgomery Flagg was 39 years old when Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Magazine asked him to provide a stirring image to encourage Americans to begin adapting to the idea that the U.S. would soon enter the war in Europe.
Flagg looked to the British for inspiration, but not the old John Bull personification of England, but rather two stirring posters which posed the image of 65-year old British field marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, famous for his iron rule as a British imperialist and colonial administrator in Africa, India, the Sudan and Egypt.
As the conflict which came to be known as World War I began in 1914, Kitchener was named Secretary of State for War.
To encourage young British men into the army by suggesting it was their nationalistic duty to the British Empire, he posed for two stirring recruitment posters, an earl example of celebrity imagery used for a cause.
The result was astounding: Kitchener’s posters led to the largest volunteer army in the history of the world, let alone England.
Though they were simply one-dimensional images, the visual impact of direct finger-pointing struck Britons in an oddly personal way.
What has rarely been grasped about Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam was that it was directly tied to the propaganda of an implicit Anglo-American military alliance.
Lord Kitchener was killed on June 5, 1916 when a German mine exploded the warship he was on, headed to negotiations with Czarist Russian military leaders.
Liberty magazine had already scheduled its “What are You Doing for Preparedness?” article as a patriotic theme for the issue hitting newsstands two days after Independence Day. The shocking news that the Germans had killed the very embodiment of British military power, however, suddenly accelerated American anxiety about the war over there.
The editors wanted an obvious yet unspoken way to imply that the continued isolation of the United States from the worsening situation in Europe had resulted in the killing of the British War Secretary.
On July 6, 1916, exactly one month and one day after Kitchener’s death, Uncle Sam as we know him today first appeared above the exact same inculcation as the second Kitchener poster: “I Want You.”
Who was the man who served as the model for the famous Uncle Sam?
Given the longer lead time for printing color magazine covers a century ago, Flagg had to work under extreme pressure. He had no time to audition for male models who might make the ideal Uncle Sam.
And so, with no indication it was a decision motivated by personal ego, James Montgomery Flagg pulled a full-length mirror into his studio and forever thrust his own face into immortality.
A year shy of forty when his Uncle Sam was first used on the magazine, Flagg was from Pelham Manor, New York. Some anecdotal suggestions credit a fellow native of the Hudson River Valley, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the visionary Flagg-waver for this particular Uncle Sam to become the official face of the U.S.
It wasn’t until World War II, however, when FDR was President that he famously complimented Flagg for posing as Uncle Sam as a thrifty move.
Known for his wily charm, Roosevelt may have also been buttering Flagg up, because he managed to smoothly convince the artist to switch from being merely patriotic into utterly political.
FDR got Flagg to rework his famous poster into one promoting his 1940 re-election campaign for a controversial third term, suggesting it would be downright unpatriotic not to vote Roosevelt in again.
The facts are that the State Department’s Committee on Public Information asked Flagg to recast his 1916 Leslie’s Weekly magazine cover into the iconic recruiting poster after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917 with the most famous of a series of numerous captions to come: “I Want You For The U.S. Army.”
Within a year, over four million copies of Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster were printed and proliferated throughout the United States.
As the enlistment and training of American soldiers, sailor and marines reached fever pitch through the spring and early summer of 1917, other interpretations of Uncle Sam were also simultaneously appearing on posters around the country, the effort of municipal and state drives, uncoordinated with the War and Navy departments in Washington.
These Uncle Sams seemed to evoke the folksier, humorous and cartoonish ones popular a decade earlier and most often appearing in the context of political cartoons, which could be critical of the U.S. federal government.
Flagg’s Uncle Sam indelibly imprinted into the American imagination not simply due to the ubiquity of millions of “I Want You” posters, but also the fact that none of the others were as serious and powerful.
Flagg’s willingness to sacrifice his Sam for his country also proved lucrative for the artist. During World War I, the U.S. government and state defense agencies commissioned him to turn out numerous other versions with different messages.
Perhaps the single most powerful reason for the absolute demise of Miss Columbia as a national symbol during the World War I era is also evidenced by the sketch pen and colored paints of James Montgomery Flagg.
Flagg designed numerous posters intended to inspire American women into Red Cross volunteer jobs, join the nursing corps and adhere to gas and food rationing which “Uncle Sam” had officially established during wartime. These always showed Uncle Sam calling on the little ladies to do their part, never Miss Columbia.
The one known image Flagg created of Miss Columbia depicts her as a rather remote matron, swathed in a red shawl over a blue dress, but entirely stripped of her stars and stripes. Now a bit stout, she’s lost her muscularity.
Flagg’s Miss Columbia is being crowned by an angel as the honored, benevolent symbol of virtuous American womanhood, but it telegraphed her official status as “retired.”
Despite the seeming “official” establishment of Flagg’s Uncle Sam by the federal government it could claim no copyright to the general image or trademark on the name.
It wasn’t long before enterprising commercial interests and manufacturers were riding the new Uncle Sam craze and appropriating him to advertise their goods, the suggestion being that buying the products being pushed was somehow good for the country as well as the company.
Though never using the Flagg version of him, the commercial exploitation of Uncle Sam continued unabated after the war, throughout the Roaring Twenties.
This was nothing new.
Since the late 19th century, Uncle Sam had been used as both an image and a product line name for any number of products, some of them with questionable quality or effectiveness.
There was no sense of this commercial use being inappropriate, even if the product ended up reflecting poorly on the image of Uncle Sam.
Some of the earlier products sold under the brand name of Uncle Sam marketed to a largely male demographic included items which a growing segment of the population also considered immoral, such as cigars and types of whiskey.
World War I, however, proved to forever brand Uncle Sam as a patriotic figure.
Although there was no attempt to legislate against his being used to sell items which might reflect poorly on the United States itself, there was a growing self-regulation on the use of his image.
Over the course of the decade after World War I, the commercial products using the brand of Uncle Sam became increasingly benign, the sort of household items to be found in the cupboards or iceboxes of any average American family home, like breakfast cereal, bread, cheese, yeast and dairy products.
Increasingly, Uncle Sam was also seen as the paragon of virtue, strength, a figure who could be trusted.
In the same way he had been invoked to call Americans to their patriotic duty in wartime and sacrifice in the voluntary support of others in need, he was also increasingly appropriated by charitable organizations in fundraising campaigns, playing on emotions that contributing to the cause was simply the right thing thing for American citizens to do.
Long gone were the sharp, often sarcastic cartoons of Thomas Nast which had used Uncle Sam to criticize U.S. foreign policy or satirize the political hypocrisy of legislation or Supreme Court rulings.
Now, Uncle Sam was neutered of all political implications, representing not a partisan faction or a willful failure to acknowledge a disgraceful condition or lack of justice.
He had become a rather gentle if bland old fellow, eagerly compliant on being trotted out on national holidays to stir happy thoughts about a flawless paternalistic government, suggesting that it was unpatriotic to resist his unrelentingly upbeat patriotism.
Once the Great Depression hit the nation hard not only with the dramatic drop in the stock market in October of 1929 but the worsening and unending massive unemployment and ensuing hunger and loss of homes over the next two years, Uncle Sam changed again.
James Montgomery Flagg had never been an overtly partisan or even political person, but his disdain for the economic policies of Herbert Hoover were made clear by the second year of the Great Depression.
Of course, neither Flagg nor Roosevelt owned the copyright on Uncle Sam. Soon enough, the older version of the national personification was re-appearing in magazines and newspapers with a more skeptical perspective on F.D.R.
- The Washington Star‘s famous cartoonist Berryman even suggested that President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were nothing but a costly line of patent medicines being forced down the nation’s throat by the smooth-talking F.D.R.
- A similar theme was struck by the old Vanity Fair magazine, which featured a cover caricature showing a geeky member of New Deal brain trust tattooing the letters of the various economic programs onto the body of the old skeptical Uncle Sam.
- Even the artist who was already coming to represent the idealization of American life, Norman Rockwell showed the more familiar image of a begin Uncle Sam pausing in great doubt about whether he was taking the right road by continuing to follow F.D.R.’s New Deal policies.
Flagg posing for his own, original Uncle Sam is often confused with the claim that he used the jazz musician Walter Botts as his model.
Botts had been a teenage Marine during World War I and his face but was for Uncle Sam in some of the later Flagg posters at the time, as well as during World War II.
As in World War I, Uncle Sam was dusted off and trotted out during World War II, to encourage patriotism, military service and voluntarism, adhere to food rationing and refrain from talking in public about news conveyed in letters from the war front.
World War II saw an outright proliferation of Uncle Sams beyond those drawn by Flagg.
There were even adaptations of the famous Flagg Uncle Sam drawn by other artists to suggest a look of authenticity.
One of these famously questioned whether American citizens were eating nutritiously enough to remain strong and do their part on the homefront.
The might and power of the United States during World War II as embodied in Uncle Sam posters intended to inspire all citizens all doing their own part for the war effort was never hesitant, quavering or frightened.
The pop culture references to him during World War II perpetuated a stalwart Uncle Sam who fought for world freedom from the tyranny of Japan and German, without hesitation or apology. As the war endured, American children were even encouraged to find inspiration in the might of Uncle Sam and he became a popular and frequent cover boy for kiddie comic books.