Ever wonder why we have ‘Uncle Sam?’

Published 2:55 am Saturday, January 14, 2017

All along in searching through various books while researching one thing or another, I run across the famous World War I poster featuring a slim, tall, bearded gentleman with a stern expression on his face and wearing a top hat with stars on a white band. He is pointing. The words beneath him are “I want you for U.S. Army.” Under that phrase is “Nearest Recruiting Station” with a space provided where the address of the recruiting station could be added.

Yes, it is that famous Army recruiting poster which first appeared in print in 1913. I remember it from magazines and posts during World War II. It was so striking—a real attention-grabber, not only for youngsters my age, but for adults as well. When I grew up and glanced at one, I often wondered who drew the figure. I was curious as to how the imposing fellow known as Uncle Sam originated. There were more WWI and WWII posters, but none that stuck with me like this one.

Uncle Sam (U.S.) is a national personification representing patriotism of our United States government that, according to legend, began during the War of 1812. The man who designed and illustrated the recruiting poster known as the most famous one created in the United States, was James Montgomery Flagg, artist and caricaturist. He was born in 1877. The recruiting poster was just one of 45 World War I posters he made.

Flagg sold his first drawing to St. Nicholas Magazine when he was around 12 years old. St. Nicholas was an outstanding and successful American children’s magazine, published by Scribner’s beginning in November 1873. It was designed for children five to eighteen years old. At 14, a couple of years after Flagg’s first successful submission, he became a regular contributor to Life and Judge. He also did illustrations for Cosmopolitan magazine and the Saturday Evening Post as a profile artist.

A 2002 review on children’s literature stated that the best-known children’s authors and illustrators contributed to St. Nicholas Magazine. Many children’s classics were first serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine. Its first runaway hit was with “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Louisa May Alcott’s “Jo’s Boys” was serialized in the magazine as well. Flagg’s work was in good company among such other contributors as Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, Ellis Parker Butler, Norman Rockwell and Livingston Hopkins.

His association with leading writers, actors and politicians in New York led him to create a book of caricatures in 1914. The title was “The Well-Knowns as Seen by James Montgomery Flagg.” He even wrote movie scripts, several comic books and his biography, which he called “Roses and Buckshot.” It was published in 1946. He passed away in 1960 at the age of 83.

What a clever, talented and accomplished person James Montgomery Flagg must have been. I suspect that as time passes, he is most known for his eye-catching patriotic illustration of Uncle Sam challenging citizens to sign up for the U.S. Army.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.