The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Uncle Sam ‘I Want YOU’ poster is 100 years old. Almost everything about it was borrowed.

James Montgomery Flagg’s familiar Uncle Sam poster used in World War I military recruiting makes a revival appearance near recruiting headquarters on E street in Washington on Dec. 8, 1961. (Bob Schutz/AP)

A white goatee on a chiseled face. Bushy eyebrows over burning eyes. Silver hair flowing out from under a tall top hat decorated with stars. And one bony finger pointed toward the observer.

These attributes belonged to Uncle Sam, as seen in the famed “I want YOU for U.S. Army” poster that helped recruit legions of young men to fight in World Wars I and II. The poster first appeared 100 years ago, around the time America declared war on Germany on April 6 and entered World War I.

It proved effective, apparently, and was printed more than 4 million times in the final year of World War I, according to the Library of Congress. One New York Times article from 1961 suggested that number eventually exceeded 5,350,000.

These physical attributes also belonged to James Montgomery Flagg, the illustrator who brought the modern Uncle Sam to life. Flagg used himself as a model, a fact that so impressed President Roosevelt, he once told the artist, “I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.”

Although the poster appeared in 1917, Flagg’s modern representation of Uncle Sam was originally published on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly magazine on July 6, 1916, accompanied by the words “What are YOU doing for preparedness?”

Flagg was a talented artist — he sold his first drawing at 12, and he began contributing to Life magazine at 14, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History — but he found himself struggling with his assignment for the magazine.

“Flagg was under a tight deadline and short on ideas; he didn’t even have a model in his studio to work with. He had his own reflection — tall and lanky, with piercing blue eyes and wavy hair,” Christopher Capozzola wrote in “Uncle Sam Wants You.”

He had found a model; now he needed inspiration.

Cue a 1914 British propaganda poster designed by Alfred Leete to help recruit soldiers to fight with the British Expeditionary Force. It depicted Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, pointing at the viewer. Under his mustachioed face were the bold words “Your country needs YOU.”

“Flagg erased the caption, borrowed Kitchener’s pose, and substituted his own face for the Brit’s — then added wrinkles, whiskers, and gray hair, just for good measure,” Capozzola wrote.

Flagg eventually designed 46 propaganda posters for the government during WWI. (There is a slight irony in this as “Flagg takes no interest in politics,” The Washington Post reported in 1937.)

Many of his posters featured Uncle Sam. Sometimes, his shirt sleeves were rolled up, exposing muscular arms — a striking deviation from previous depictions of the character.

Previous incarnations portrayed Uncle Sam as a “congenial, folksy, older man,” according to “From Jeeves to Uncle Sam: The Legacy of James Montgomery Flagg.”

Before Flagg’s version, the most famous depiction belonged to cartoonist Thomas Nast. His verged on cartoonish, while Flagg’s was “stern and muscular” and “forever changed the way the character would be viewed.”

In 1937, The Post suggested it was Flagg who gave Uncle Sam “an air of dignity.”

This more masculine, attractive version of the character wasn’t particularly surprising. “All my life I have been a worshiper of that beauty of human form you see in some men and women,” Flagg wrote in his autobiography “Roses and Buckshot.”

He gained fame from drawing beautiful women, but his idea of beauty deviated from the standards at the time. As reported in “Appearing Modern: Women’s Bodies, Beauty, and Power in 1920s America,” societal expectations for female beauty did not include feminine curves. “Slim’s the word,” Jesse Henderson wrote in The Washington Post in 1921. “A plump beauty has a fat chance of being popular in these anemic times.”

A quick glance at Flagg’s many (many) sensual drawings of women — which he claimed were “the most plentiful thing produced in America” — proves he certainly didn’t share this view or care to represent it in his art. “He never liked a woman who wasn’t beautiful, and the Flagg idea of beauty was full bosomed, had fair skin, a turned-up nose and voluptuous lips,” The Post wrote in 1960.

Upon his death in 1960, the New York Times sub-headline stated, “Artist was noted for patriotic war posters and magazine drawings of women.”

Art Wood, author of “Great Cartoonists and Their Art,” once visited Flagg’s studio and noted that it was filled with nude models. “These beautiful girls were lounging in large stuffed chairs that ringed his studio. One was smoking a cigarette, with her leg over the arm of the chair, and the other was reading a magazine, a scene right out of a Renoir painting with similar color in similar places. It was hard to concentrate even on James Montgomery Flagg.”

Flagg’s image of Uncle Sam certainly lives on today. Aside from being adapted for usage during World War II, the image is often appropriated to promote other causes. Smokey Bear, that hairy preventer of forest fires, appeared in a poster from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Much like Leete’s Lord Kitchener and Flagg’s Uncle Sam, the bear pointed directly at the viewer.

And much like Leete’s and Flagg’s posters, the all-uppercase “YOU” appeared directly under it.

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