Allied propagandists produced many iconic images during the Great War, but none compares to the singular creation of James Montgomery Flagg. His image of the defiant-faced Uncle Sam character along with the simple phrase “I Want YOU” rose above the realm of mere propaganda to become a part of the American psyche—as relevant today as it was in 1917.
Flagg was born in Pelham Manor, New York in 1877. A child prodigy, Flagg sold his first illustration to St. Nicholas Magazine at the age of twelve. At fifteen, he was a staff artist for both Judge and Life magazines, two of the nation’s most successful periodicals. Flagg studied at the Art Students League in New York City from 1894 to 1898, and then in London and Paris from 1898 to 1900. Upon his return from Europe, he created a comic strip “Nervy Nat,” which gained immediate popularity. Flagg also showed talent in the nascent film industry, acting in 14 short films and writing 31.
When the United States entered the war in April of 1917, the State Department requested that the Creel Commission’s Division of Pictorial Publicity tap into the country’s well-known and respected artists to participate by using their talents to create printed artwork in support of the war effort. Flagg was asked to participate in the printed arm of the Committee on Public Information and to write promotional films for the Marines and the Red Cross. His famous Uncle Sam poster was actually a command performance; he’d previously crafted the character for the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” and was asked to develop it into a war poster. Though the Uncle Sam poster would go on to be by far his most famous work, it was far from his only contribution. Between 1917 and 1919, Flagg created 45 other patriotic posters for the war effort including the powerful “Wake Up America Day” and “Tell That to the Marines!”
The origin of Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam character is not entirely clear. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed that when he met Flagg, the artist admitted to using his own face as the template “to save modeling fee,” at which point Roosevelt congratulated him on his thriftiness and told him, “Your method suggests Yankee forebears.” However, Flagg’s granddaughter, Cathy O’Brien offered a different history:
In 1916, JMF reluctantly accepted a 4th of July project by Leslie Magazine, and eventually found his Uncle Sam one rainy night on a train bound for Parris Island, on his way to unveil a portrait of the Commandant. His ‘symbol of our country’ was a young, roughly 17 year old, marine, which he considered the finest branch of our armed forces. He was able to acquire a 24-hour pass for this ‘boot’ not normally allowed off base, and he aged his model’s adolescent face by forty years and turned a circus clown’s costume into symbolic dignity. This cover was eventually made into a recruiting poster at the request of the State Department and is now recognized as the most famous war poster of our time. By WWII, JMF had ironically begun to look remarkably like his original Uncle Sam. When FDR is quoted as saying ‘saving model hire’ in a personal letter to JMF, he is referring to the 2nd World War posters. By the time WWII broke out, he was beginning to resemble his Uncle Sam Character (sic) more and more.
Adapted versions of Flagg’s “I Want You” poster continued to be used after the Great War, notably in World War II and the Vietnam War. The image is still used today, both satirically and seriously. One notable example was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. When New York City asked for help after the World Trade Center tragedy, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s face was substituted for Uncle Sam.
Internet Movie Database. “James Montgomery Flagg.” Accessed September 19, 2011. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0280841/
IN THE COLLECTION
16A “I Want YOU” 1917, 30×40, WWI
16A “I Want YOU” 1942, 30×40, WWII
16A “I Want YOU” 1968, 10×14, Vietnam War
16A-1 “I Want YOU” 1980, 12×15
16A-2 “I Want YOU” 1989, 11×14
16A “Your Army Needs You Now” 1981, 26×20
35B “Tell That To The Marines!” 29.5×40
82B “Sow the Seeds of Victory” 1918, War Garden Campaign, 22×33
82B “Sow the Seeds of Victory” 1918, War Garden Campaign, 9.5×13
87A “The Road to France—He Is Keeping It Open” 1917, First Liberty Loan, 18.5×24.5
135B “Boys and Girls! Help Your Uncle Sam” 1918, War Savings Stamps, 20×30
138R “I Am Telling You, On June 28th” War Savings Stamps, 20×30
#199 “Together We Win,” 1918, 11×14
#242 “America’s Bit,” 1918, magazine cover, 10×14
#314 “Say When,” 1908, 11×14
Advertisement for the sale of “Have a Heart” by James Montgomery Flagg (cover of Judge in 1916) for sale by Judge Art Print, in the May 25, 1916 issue of Leslie’s p. 671
Advertisement for the sale of “A Curtain of Fire,” a print by James Montgomery Flagg, for sale by Judge Art Print in the July 20, 1916 issue of Leslie’s p. 78
Leslie’s May 3, 1917, cover art by James Montgomery Flagg, “Despotism Against Democracy”
Leslie’s January 26, 1918, cover art by James Montgomery Flagg, “Allies”
Advertisement for the need for more American nurses uses image by James Montgomery Flagg, in the October 1917 issue of the Red Cross Magazine
Framed black and white photograph of James Montgomery Flagg taken July 8, 1932