Early Images of Flagg's Uncle Sam
June 11, 2008
In an earlier post, we mentioned the WWI-era artwork of James Montgomery Flagg. Today, we've got a bit more to say about the image that most people associate with Flagg.
While preparing for the Library & Archives upcoming exhibition on illustrated American sheet music, I came across a fairly early visual reference to James Montgomery Flagg's famous, iconic image of "Uncle Sam." The cover of "What Kind of American Are You? What Are You Doing Over Here?" published by the Broadway Music Corporation in 1917, shows a very similar image, clearly borrowed from Flagg's, with Uncle Sam's finger pointing (or is that wagging?) at the viewer.
The sheet music cover was published the same year that Flagg's image of Uncle Sam first appeared on U.S. Army recruitment posters - what James Montgomery Flagg himself called "the most famous poster in the world" - the "I Want You" U.S. Army recruitment poster.
As the Library of Congress notes, Flagg's illustration was first used the year before, on the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly with the title "What Are you Doing for Preparedness?" - a question asked as the United States prepared to enter World War I.
We have issues of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly from around this period and so I decided to see if we have this issue where Flagg's Uncle Sam image makes its first appearance. It turns out that we do. In the end, what turned out to be most interesting wasn't the image on the cover of Leslie's Weekly however, but something I found when flipping through the issue from the following week (July 13, 1916), where I found the same image of Uncle Sam - reappearing just a week after his debut. This time his image was being used to sell books in an advertisement. A detail of the ad can be seen here.
The publishers of Leslie's Weekly were selling a 4-volume set called The Great Republic: An Illustrated History of the American People, by The Master Historians - all for the low price of $1.97.
Beside the image of Flagg's Uncle Sam, the ad - playing on the upcoming presidential election of 1916 - reads, in part:
"Know The Facts About Your Own Country. You are soon going to exercise your most important right as a citizen of this great republic by helping to decided who is to be your next president. To make a wise choice of candidates it is important that you should know American facts bearing on the vital questions of the hour."
The ad goes on to echo the previous week's appearance of Flagg's Uncle Sam by tying Flagg's image and the question of "preparadness" by stating: “Trade conditions have made it possible for us to secure on favorable terms a few sets of these intensely interesting volumes, and as our own contribution toward real PREPAREDNESS at this opportune time we will offer these sets, while they last, to quick buyers at a wonderful bargain.”
Of course, this image of Uncle Sam has been repurposed over and over again since Flagg first created it. However, it was striking to stumble upon the second time that the image ever appeared and see that his image was being used to hawk history books - all in the name of "preparedness," and just a week after his debut.