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The Story Behind One of the Most Iconic Images in American History


This recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam pointing his finger at the viewer is one of the most iconic images in American history. While we are accustomed to this depiction of Uncle Sam today, he did not always look this way.

In the late 1860s and 1870s, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast is credited with beginning to popularize the image of Uncle Sam. According to history.com, "Nast continued to evolve the image, eventually giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today."

Nast's image of Uncle Sam on the cover of the November 24, 1876 edition of Harper's Weekly. (Photo: sonofthesouth.net)

James Montgomery Flagg was later tasked with reinterpreting the image of Uncle Sam. His bold new look first appeared on the cover of the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie's Weekly with the title, "What Are You Doing For Preparedness?"

James Montgomery Flagg's reinterpreted design for Uncle Sam on the cover of the July 16, 1916, issue of Leslie's Weekly. (Photo: Library of Congress)

When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, the American government asked Flagg to use his version of Uncle Sam to create Army recruitment material. Flagg then adapted his image of Uncle Sam for a poster and added the caption, "I Want You For U.S. Army." More than 4 million copies of the image were printed between 1917 and 1918. This iconic poster was incredibly successful and would be used again during the Second World War.

The infamous Army recruiting poster that was first used in World War I and designed by James Montgomery Flagg. (Photo: learn.org)

Many historians believe that James Flagg borrowed inspiration for his Uncle Sam design from a 1914 British recruitment poster designed by artist Alfred Leete. In 1914, Leete's image featured British war hero and Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

Alfred Leete's design featuring Lord Kitchener on a World War I British recruitment poster. (Photo: vintageposterblog.com)

Flagg is believed to have created almost 46 pieces of work to support America's war effort in the Great War. He called his Uncle Sam creation, "the most famous poster in the world." As we look back nearly 100 years later, he might just have been right.

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