The many faces of Uncle Sam
By Gene Tempest
The stern-faced poster of Uncle Sam, finger pointing at the viewer, demanding “I Want You,” is one hundred years old this year. Showing no signs of decrepitude nor any desire for quiet retirement, today the icon remains as recognizable and remixed as ever. Uncle Sam’s demands have changed during his long life on paper, and, increasingly, in pixel, but he has endured. After a century, “I Want You” is arguably still the single most famous image in American history.
The original was created for a less momentous purpose. The Uncle Sam we know today was painted on a tight deadline by the professional illustrator James Montgomery Flagg. Flagg was working on cover art for the July 6, 1916 issue of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly — a special edition that focused on arguments for military “preparedness” (military budget increases, growth of the armed forces). The Great War in Europe, raging since the summer of 1914, had made the Preparedness Movement increasingly popular in the United States. The first, now forgotten caption to Flagg’s image was, “What Are You Doing For Preparedness?”
When Flagg sat down to draw him, Uncle Sam already existed as an easily identifiable figure in American visual culture. He had first appeared as a cartoon and national personification in the 1830s. He truly came into his own in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, in the age of the great illustrated weeklies — like Puck and Harper’s — and through the work of prolific cartoonist Thomas Nast (who was also responsible for the look of the first modern American Santa Claus, and for the Republican Party’s elephant). By 1916, Uncle Sam would already have been recognizable to most Americans as a lanky symbol with white hair and a goatee, wearing a tall hat, striped red and white trousers, and a long blue tailcoat.
Flagg later claimed that he had wanted to create a “new type,” a more modern American uncle. “I didn’t like the circusy Uncle Sam with stars all over him,” Flagg wrote in his 1946 memoir Roses and Buckshot. He set out to paint “a handsome, dignified figure” instead.
In his studio in New York City, Flagg added his own — very personal — touches. He used a mirror to finish the illustration, and drew Uncle Sam’s famous details — piercing blue eyes, handsome lips, shaggy grandfatherly eyebrows — from his own face. Although Flagg was clean shaven, he kept Uncle Sam’s distinctive facial hair. His Sam’s dress was similar to, but less flamboyant than his ancestors’: blue coat, white shirt, red bow tie. There were no stripes, and only a single tasteful row of stars trimmed the hat.
When the United States joined the war in April 1917, Flagg’s Uncle Sam was immediately mobilized. The illustrator transferred the copyright to the U.S. Government, the text was changed to “I Want You,” and a record-breaking four million recruitment posters were rushed off the nation’s color lithographic presses.
The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger reported Uncle Sam’s arrival in the City of Brotherly Love on June 1, 1917, four days before the registration for the first draft since the Civil War. Uncle Sam had come to guide you to the nearest recruiting station. “It is evident from the expression on Uncle Sam’s face that he means business,” noted the Ledger. “There’s an air of determination about his lips . . . And no matter from what direction you view his face you’ll find him looking at you.”
Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and author of more than one hundred books on political art and graphic design, explains what makes the poster so effective: “It’s right at you. . . . It’s an indictment. It’s a command. . . . The type is sans serif and very demonstrative. . . . And it also looks like it’s unfinished on the bottom . . . [which] suggests that there was a kind of immediacy to it.”
“I don’t think perfection is anything we really talk about in that poster,” Heller says. “It just works all together.”
The image has worked — and continues to work — for all kinds of admonitions and desires. Since 1917, Uncle Sam has wanted you for the Second World War. He has wanted you to support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency (“I Want You F.D.R. / Stay and Finish the Job”). He has shape shifted from spokesman for the state to voice of protest. During the Vietnam War, bandaged and bleeding, he wanted out. Another Vietnam poster suggested that Uncle Sam’s true face was that of Death: behind the torn image of the flesh and blood uncle was a beckoning skeleton; it still said “I Want You for the U.S. Army,” but the words read differently.
Uncle Sam is now enjoying a vigorous second life in the digital era, the age of the remix. He’s shed his skin hundreds more times, but his posture, gaze, and pointing right index finger have remained. So has the way he delivers the message — whatever that may be.
He wants you for all manner of fictional armies, rebels and Galactic Empire alike. As David “Big Papi” Ortiz, he wants you to support the Red Sox. In a design by Dan McCall for a WikiLeaks fundraiser, as Edward Snowden he wants you to whistle-blow.
In 2008, Mark Langan, an artist from Cleveland, Ohio, created a remix made of recycled cardboard in which a corrugated Uncle Sam, his index finger physically protruding five inches out of the frame, told viewers “I Want You to Recycle.”
“I’ve known that Uncle Sam artwork since I’ve been a child,” Langan told me. “It’s just something that sticks with you. . . . The original artist — he nailed it. Absolutely. It’s like Rosie the Riveter, too. . . . It’s like you can’t unsee an accident or something in your mind. It’s just a beautiful piece.”
Langan says he wanted his recycled Uncle Sam to “recreate the same feel” as the original American version, “but do it with a completely . . . ubiquitous material that everybody deals with every day.”
“I would say it’s an homage,” he says. “It’s a salutation, in corrugation, to that art work.”
We often think of remix culture as a uniquely modern phenomenon, so it is surprising that Flagg’s “I Want You” was already a remix when it was first created a hundred years ago. The original Uncle Sam was in fact a re-imagination and Americanization of a British recruitment poster created by Alfred Leete in 1914.
Leete’s near-identical version featured a commanding, non-fictional statesman (Lord Kitchener, the Minister of War) with an enormous mustache, pointing a giant gloved finger directly at the viewer, supplemented by the words “Your Country Needs You.” In a subsequent reprinting the slogan was changed to the now internationally familiar “Wants You.”
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