America’s Symbol

UNCLE SAM AMERICA’S SYMBOL

There are two important reasons for studying American history. The second is to learn about our past.   The knowledge we acquire helps us better deal with, give meaning and understanding to our current lives.

The first is because history is fun!

In the middle of the last century, when i was a high school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, my blackboard was always filled with anecdotes of history. My students called it “Ehrlich’s little known and less cared about facts of history”. On the contrary, it was filled with critical information like: who or what it means to be “ok” or why the people from New York are referred to as “Yankees”.

One story that never made it then but would have been welcomed by the other anecdotes, is the story of the current image of our favorite (except on April 15th) uncle.—Uncle Sam

The origins and the early development of the fictional character have been recounted in the two earlier articles.

The story picks up in 1916 – exactly one hundred years ago. America was at an historical fork in the road, caught between two warring factions. On the one side were the “allies”; home to the vast majority of our “Founding Fathers”. On the opposite side were the “Central powers — Germany, Austria and Hungary; home to a large majority of our newly Americanized immigrants.

pic1Literal translation – combined forces drove to the goal – Central powers was established 6/28/1914 dissolved 11/11/1918

The United States had maintained “neutrality” since the war’s inception in 1914. We profited as much as possible by selling munitions, war materials and clothing to both camps.  In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was elected on the slogan “he kept us out of war” and many American hoped that we would never get involved in a war that was being fought thousands of miles away from our shores. In reality, Germany had already come to see that the united states position was helping England and the allies much more than it was helping the central powers. Germany was trying to choke off the shipping of war materials to England. The United States was standing directly in their path. Germany began a naval campaign to stop shipments of war munitions and other goods from reaching allied ports in and around Europe. Ships like the Lusitania were sunk as part of their war effort and American lives were lost. America was relentlessly being drawn into the war on the side of England.

New York newspapers closely followed the war. They used maps to show the progress (or more accurately, the lack of progress) of the conflagration. They used pictures (a recent development) to show the devastation and destruction of every battle. One of the leading New York weeklies was a magazine called “Leslie’s”. It was a pro-war, pro-trade, pro-business magazine. Early in 1916, the powers-to-be at Leslie’s thought that American’s need to be warned or prepared for what was certain to be in their near future. The magazine could have hired the seasoned veteran artist, Leutemaker, or rising artist Norman Rockwell but they chose instead a seasoned professional political artist to bring to the attention of Americans the seriousness of what was soon to unfold. The artist’s name was James Montgomery Flagg (a great irony to me since i am in the flag business).

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Leslie’s Magazine Cover 7/6/1916 – artist: James Montgomery Flagg

Flagg set to work on the project of designing the cover for the July 4th (actually July 6th) edition. He quickly decided the best spokesman for the cover needed to be America’s symbolic leader for the past century “Uncle Sam”.

His next job was to come up with a concept that would stand up and catch the reader’s attention. To do this he most likely “borrowed” a time-honored idea that was most recently used very effectively by artist Alfred Leete who, in 1914, created a war poster showing Lord Kitchener (England’s war minister and most famous British officer of the boar war, pointing his finger and telling the English people “we need you”.

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London opinion newspaper cover September 5, 1914 – artist: Alfred Leete

Next, he needed someone to sit and pose for the cover. He hired a soldier, but the soldier failed to show for the sitting. Up against a deadline, he wound up using the traditional Uncle Sam’s appearance and added the face he knew best….. The one he saw in the mirror every morning when he shaved!

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James Montgomery Flagg, 1915, photographed by Arnold Genthe 

The cover was a success and when war was declared he was conscripted by the United States government to use his “Uncle Sam” to represent America, the government felt that a symbol was needed to sell the war to the millions of American citizens who were caught up in fighting the war, supporting the war and paying for the war.