Uncle Sam’s Origins

According to its creator, James Montgomery Flagg, the portrait went on to become “the most famous poster in the world.”

The portrait to which he referred is of an elderly man with white hair and a goatee wearing a top hat with white stars on a blue band, and red and white striped trousers. None other than “Uncle Sam” himself.

Originally printed in the magazine Leslie’s Weeklyunder the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” the poster was renamed to “I Want You” when it began its career as a recruitment image. Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918, and the image was also used extensively during World War II to encourage men to join the ranks.

AMERICA'S MAN - Uncle Sam is as much an American symbol as the bald eagle or the stars and stripes. He first appeared in World War I army recruitment posters.

Perhaps one of the most iconic American images, “Uncle Sam” bears resemblance to Flagg as well as to Samuel Wilson, who purportedly inspired the character.

As the story goes… during World War I, Sam Wilson was a meat packer living and working in Troy, New York. Each barrel of meat rations was stamped “US” before it was shipped to American soldiers. The soldiers of that time equated their United States supplied rations with Uncle Sam Wilson. The story grew to mythological proportions, resulting in a somewhat fictional image of Sam Wilson emerging as the white bearded, red-white-and-blue clad symbol of America.

THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE - The real Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy, New York during World War I, who reportedly inspired the character Uncle Sam.

The 87th Congress of the United States adopted the following resolution on September 15, 1961:

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

In terms of defining America, Uncle Sam is right up there with the bald eagle and the stars and stripes.

Persuasion In Propaganda

During World War II, American propaganda was used to increase support for the war and to ensure a commitment to an Allied victory. Posters were commissioned by branches of the U.S. Government such as the armed forces, recruiting bureaus, the Office of War Information, and the United States Treasury. Patriotic in nature, these prints stirred up pro-American feelings and helped mobilize citizens to support the war movement.

Within the realm of political art, I’m most fascinated by the persuasive power of propaganda posters. With just a simple design and a short (and sometimes not-so-sweet) slogan, prints gave off a powerful message, called people to action, and produced a lasting effect on the home front.

I’ve posted a video in tribute.

Watch this YouTube video for a look at some of the most iconic propaganda posters used in World War II.


Sucks To Be Him

Clearly, this is not a prime example of a father. On the contrary, he appears to be the family disappointment.

I’ve seen this image before in history books, and I’d always assumed it was an American piece of propaganda. It is in fact British.

This 1915 British propaganda poster by Savile Lumley was based on a real-life father who worried what his children would later think of him if he didn’t contribute to the war effort by enlisting.

Designed in 1915 by the print artist Savile Lumley and mass produced by the British Parliamentary Recruitment Committee, it was intended to encourage men to enlist. Before conscription became law in 1916, the British government relied primarily on propaganda like this to up recruitment numbers.

One can imagine the scene. Presumably the girl has just learned about the Great War in school. Intrigued by the stories her teacher tells and the pictures she sees in her schoolbook, she innocently inquires, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” in the way that children do, having no prior reason to believe that her father ISN’T in fact the great hero of World War I.

I think the poster captures the awkward moment between her question and his answer—the moment he realizes he has nothing to say.

It certainly inspires a sense of patriotic guilt and tugs at the emotions. No dad wants to be THAT dad.

Interestingly enough, though, the poster turns out to be based on a real-life THAT dad. The idea for the poster was actually that of a printer, Arthur Gunn, who reportedly imagined himself as the father in question. His son, Paul, later revealed the poster’s beginnings:

“One night my father came home very worried about the war situation and discussed with my mother whether he should volunteer. He happened to come in to where I was asleep and quite casually said to my mother, If I don’t join the forces whatever will I say to Paul if he turns round to me and says, What did you do in the Great War, Daddy? He suddenly turned round to my mother and said that would make a marvelous slogan for a recruiting poster. He shot off to see one of his pet artists, Savile Lumley, had a sketch drawn straight away, based on the theme projected about five years hence, although by the time it had taken shape the questioner had become one of my sisters.”  –Paul Gunn

Gunn soon after joined the Westminster Volunteers to ensure he wouldn’t remain THAT dad.