Behind the camera: James Montgomery Flagg
Where: Flagg’s Studio
Photo Summary: Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer in such a way that the finger seems to follow the viewer around the room.
Picture Taken: Originally published as the cover for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly with the title ‘What Are You Doing for Preparedness?’. Released as a poster in 1917.
This image is in the public domain because it was taken by a federal employee, James Montgomery Flagg
This World War I recruitment poster image of Uncle Sam is one of the most recognized posters in the world. The poster cemented the image of bearded Uncle Sam and over 4 million posters were created. It became so popular that it was recreated for World War II and since then used as inspiration for countless other posters.
Painting Uncle Sam
James Montgomery Flagg originally created the image for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”. When America entered World War I the federal government set up a propaganda division called, Committee on Public Information, headed by one George Creel. Creel, in turn, created a Committee of Pictorial Publicity (COPP) which was to specialize in creating pro-war posters. Flagg joined COPP in 1917 and redesigned his earlier Leslie magazine cover into the present famous poster.
The image is actually based on a very popular British recruitment poster, Kitchener Wants You! (Shown Below), published in 1914 and designed by artist Alfred Leete. Looking for a more stern face for Uncle Sam Flagg used his own features for the face and, “an inescapable, slacker-accusing finger, demanding: I WANT YOU.” During World War II when presenting a copy to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Flagg remarked that he had used his own face. Roosevelt replied: “I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.”
Uncle Sam’s origins remain rather murky but seem to have come from the war effort surrounding the War of 1812 when America tried to conquer its northern neighbour, Canada. Legend has it that the meat that the soldiers received had the initials E.A.– the U.S. stamped on all the army-bound food. E.A. stood for government subcontractor Elbert Anderson and the U.S. stood for the United States of America. Some of the soldiers didn’t make the connection and when asked what the initials stood for army suppliers told them, “Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam” Uncle Sam being another contractor who supplied meat, a much loved Sam Wilson. History.com claims that on Sept 7, 1813, the “United States gets its nickname, Uncle Sam.”
Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope remarks that the story is, “Very neat, but is it true? On the surface, it might seem so. Researchers have established that Elbert Anderson and Sam Wilson did exist and did supply meat to the government during the War of 1812. What’s more, the earliest known reference to Uncle Sam in the sense of the U.S. government appeared in 1813 in the Troy Post.”
However, the first connection with Uncle Sam equaling Sam Wilson doesn’t appear in print until almost 30 years later. Even when Sam Wilson died in 1854 his home papers didn’t mention the Sam Wilson, Uncle Sam connection. The post in 1816 did print a story claiming that Uncle Sam originated from the United States Light Dragoons (USLD) a regiment formed in 1807. This story claims that when asked what was said on their hats the USLD soldiers would say, “Uncle Sam’s Lazy Dogs.” In any event, Uncle Sam’s origins will remain shrouded in history.