In honor of Uncle Sam Day, we tracked down the story of the familiar bearded figure.
Drawing by James Montgomery Flagg of Uncle Sam. Flagg called the recruiting poster that uses this image "The most famous poster in the world."
He has been part of advertising for over 100 years, appearing on products ranging from cereal to car insurance. He's recruited Americans for military service and encouraged us to support the war effort. His name is mentioned in popular song. He makes regular appearances in political cartoons in newspapers across the country. He even hangs out in the hallways of this museum.
A retired exhibition prop depicting Uncle Sam leads the way down one of our staff hallways, a landmark for new staff and interns
The image of Uncle Sam as a personification of our nation and government is widespread and instantly recognizable. But did you ever wonder about where he came from? Was he purely imaginary, or based on a real historical figure?
The character Uncle Sam has a long history. The use of allegorical figures to represent a place dates back to the classical Roman era, and the Renaissance re-established them in Western art and culture by the 17th century. In the early days of the United States, a female figure named Columbia (the name is derived from Christopher Columbus) stood for the nation; she kept her place as an often-used symbol of our country through the early 20th century.
Columbia, 1850–1880. Columbia was widely recognized as the historical female personification of the identity of the United States. Derived from the Latin for "The lands of Columbus," Columbia was often associated with ships and places. By 1920, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor replaced Columbia as the symbol of America, welcoming waves of immigrants to new lives in a new homeland.
Uncle Sam has been around for almost as long, sometimes appearing with Columbia as well. There are several theories about where he comes from, but the most cited origin story traces Uncle Sam back to a man in Troy, New York. Sam Wilson delivered meat packed in barrels to soldiers during the War of 1812. Wilson was a well-liked and trustworthy man in Troy, and local residents called him "Uncle Sam." When people around town saw those supply barrels marked "U.S." they assumed the letters meant Uncle Sam, and the soldiers adopted the same thinking. In reality, Wilson had labeled the barrels "U.S." for "United States," and so the two ideas merged—Uncle Sam became a symbol for the United States of America. (This story is also the official one—Congress passed a resolution in 1961 adopting this account as the official history.)
Uncle Sam started appearing in images and literature soon after the War of 1812. He was popularized in the late 19th century in political cartoons by one of the country's most well-known cartoonists, Thomas Nast. However, the 1917 recruiting poster of Uncle Sam asking YOU to join the army is perhaps the most enduring rendition of the national character.
The Division of Armed Forces History at the museum has the original drawing used to produce those posters. James Montgomery Flagg created dozens of posters for the United States during World War I and II. Flagg was an illustrator and artist, and originally made this particular drawing of Uncle Sam for the cover of a newsweekly. The title appearing with the piece was "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" but for the recruiting poster the caption read "I Want YOU for U.S. Army."
"I Want You for U.S. Army," 1917, James Montgomery Flagg, chromolithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Barry and Melissa Vilkin, 1995.84.53
The image and caption were themselves based on an earlier recruiting poster from Great Britain of Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, in much the same pose. Kitchener was a popular man in Great Britain and an obvious choice for encouraging the public to support their country in war. Flagg adopted the pose and language of the British poster but transformed it into something more enduring by using an allegorical, rather than historical, figure.
Indeed, the image was a powerful one: Uncle Sam's striking features, expressive eyebrows, pointed finger, and direct address to the viewer made this drawing into an American icon. The government printed four million posters during 1917 and 1918 and the image was used again during World War II. There are numerous spin-offs of the poster—the combination of pose and caption lends itself to variation; it's sort of an early version of an Internet meme. These new, imitative images derive their power from our familiarity with the original poster.
An iconic image of Smokey the Bear. Smokey Bear's famous phrase could be seen as a derivative of Uncle Sam's. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The original drawing is a little faded but still affecting to those who see it in our art storage room. It's an image that's part of our national vocabulary and belongs to all of us. The museum is pleased that James Montgomery Flagg gave us the original drawing, so that it too belongs to the American people.
Want to learn more about Uncle Sam? Listen to this History Explorer podcast I recently recorded.
Natalie Elder is a collections manager in the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History. Curious about other iconic figures? This fire hat includes an image of Lady Liberty while these include images of Hope and Columbia. The Library of Congress website "John Bull & Uncle Sam" includes many fascinating images, such as this one in which John Bull and Uncle Sam share a friendly handshake.
Deceitful, manipulative, persuasive or informative? However you perceive it, propaganda has been used to change the way the world thinks and behaves for thousands of years.
These days, thanks to a history of it being used to drive harmful or discriminatory messages, propaganda generally carries a negative connotation. But propaganda can be used effectively to relay positive messages, like health recommendations, PSAs, and encouraging people to vote.
We’ve curated a collection of 50 prominent examples of propaganda, positive and negative, throughout history. If we’ve missed any notable ones, let us know in the comment section below!
01. I Want You
What’s now regarded as the most famous poster in the world, the I Want You poster first appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly on July 6, 1916 (as the United States was entering World War I) with the title, ‘What Are You Doing for Preparedness?’ The poster showed Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer, compelling them to action.
02. What Did YOU Do?
This poster was created by British illustrator Savile Lumley and was used in World War I to compel men with families to enlist. The aim of the poster was to strike at their pride, persuading them that in the future their children would judge them not for their decision to support their family back home, but for their wartime contribution.
03. Be careful what you say
This simple poster from the Second World War sent the clear message to the civilians of the Allied Powers that Hitler’s Germany had means of listening into their communications.
04. We Can Do It!
Another incredibly popular poster worldwide was created by J. Howard Miller in 1943. Originally, it was created for Westinghouse Electric and used strictly internally to boost the morale of women who already worked at the company, rather than to recruit women to come to work. The poster was rediscovered in the early 80s and used to promote feminism, and is often mistaken for Rosie the Riveter.
05. Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter was created in 1943 by Norman Rockwell, and actually represents the American women that worked in the munitions and war supplies factories in WWII. It served as a call to arms for women to become strong and capable in order to support the war effort.
06. Chinese ‘Rosie the Riveter’
This poster is similar to the American Rosie the Riveter, and was created by Ning Hao. It shows women being asked to work in factories alongside men, but only partially empowering them. The main purpose of this poster was to increase the workforce in China.
07. Che Guevara
Created by Jim Fitzpatrick and based on a famous photograph by Alberto Korda, this image became famous worldwide during the Vietnam war protests, and was used during the Paris student riots in 1960. It is viewed as everything from a revolution inspiring icon to a retro logo.
This poster goes against child labor, and shows small children working hard while a large and portly man looks on with bags of money at his feet. It depicts him as stealing their innocence and childhood, due to the incredibly dangerous nature of the jobs they were forced to work to help feed themselves and their families while being paid incredibly small sums.
A powerful anti-smoking statement, this poster borrows from the classic Atari game Pong. The cigarette acts as one of the ‘paddles’ and keeps ticking away at the lungs one piece at a time. The viewer knows that if the game were to continue, the lungs would be destroyed completely, which ultimately symbolizes a ‘game over’ – or death.
10. It’s our flag
A poster commissioned by the London Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. This one appealed to the sense of patriotism of its audience, using the British flag as a symbol to encapsulate what needed protecting.
11. Buy War Bonds
Encouraging people to buy war bonds was an incredibly popular propaganda message, and an example can be seen here. It shows three children underneath a shadow of the Nazi symbol, along with the message ‘don’t let that shadow touch them, buy war bonds’. This message implies that if you don’t support the war financially, harm could come to your children, playing on people’s fear. It was incredibly successful.
This poster was created in Britain during WWII. It shows an array of different types of British citizens all coming together in a time of need. The ideas of race and class are completely disregarded, and it encourages everyone to come together and help their country.
13. Perks of Joining the Submarine Service
Playing on the desires of men, this poster alludes to the idea that joining the service will attract women. It promoted the idea that serving was fun and full of rewards, and chose not to show any negativity or harsh imagery to ‘scare’ people into joining.
14. Someone Talked!
This poster created during WWII was aimed at dissuading people from talking about the war and revealing important information about the US Navy to potential spies. It depicts a man, floating in a body of water (seemingly after his warship had been sunk), with the message “Someone Talked”.
15. For You and Your Country’s Sake
This propaganda poster encourages women to join the armed forces ‘for themselves and their country.’ It portrays the women as strong and stoic, looking towards the future, together. Perhaps they are looking towards the future of the country, or their families’ futures.
16. Change to a Victory Job
A poster commissioned in Australia in 1943 to encourage the country’s women to trade in their civilian jobs for war jobs. With her fist clenched and her expression serious and urgent, the woman here was depicted as a strong, independent and active contributor to Australia’s war efforts.
17. Keep Cool with Coolidge
This is a campaign poster for Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 campaign. It shows him steering the ‘Ship of the State’ alongside Columbia, who is the female personification of the United States. It has his famous slogan ‘Keep Cool with Coolidge’ at the top, and portrays him as collected and in charge of where the country is going.
18. Vote for Peace
This is an anti-war poster, and shows the death tolls for both American and Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam war. It says that the war is over for them, because they’re dead, but can be over for everyone if they vote for ‘peace’.
This Nazi propaganda poster depicts the people of the United States as domineering and portraying a number of negative ‘characteristics’ of American citizens. They show them as money-grubbing and racist, and are encouraging the German people to look at Americans in a negative way.
20. Looking for Hope
Another Nazi poster, this one shows starving and homeless Germans, and has the message that Hitler is their only hope for survival (“unsere letzte hoffnung: Hitler” means “Our last hope: Hitler.”)
21. Knit Your Bit
The American Red Cross created this poster to encourage women to ‘knit their bit’, and contribute to the war efforts by knitting socks for soldiers. Since most military clothes were produced in factories, socks weren’t actually needed to be knitted by citizens, but the poster acted to create patriotic involvement.
22. Build Tanks
This poster encourages Russians to help the country build more tanks in order to defeat Nazi Germany. It shows both a man and a woman looking out into space. They look strong and hopeful, giving Russian citizens hope that the war will come to an end.
23. The Emancipation of Russian Women
Another Russian poster, this one shows the emancipation of Russian women. Instead of showing her in the workforce, they defeminized her, making her look like a man. This in turn made the poster into an effort to increase labor in both men and women.
24. Work in Britain
This poster is Britain’s version of Russia’s emancipation poster, but actually shows the woman as a woman. It calls for women to join the workforce, but gives them a powerful stance and a purpose.
25. Talk Less
This propaganda poster, again from the era of the Second World War, warns of the risk of German spies infiltrating the civilian communities of the Allied Powers. This message was spread consistently during the war and for some time after it was over.
26. Women of Britain Say Go!
Another propaganda poster from World War I, used to encourage British to let their men leave home soil to take up arms in the war efforts on the European continent. Much of the propaganda disseminated during both of the world wars was targeted at women “back home.”
27. Socialism Throttling The Country
This poster was commissioned by the Conservative Party in Britain in 1909. It depicted the “beast” of socialism endangering the plight of British prosperity.
28. Get a War Job
This poster encourages women who were left behind by loved ones who went off to war to get a war job. It manipulates their emotions and plays off of their loneliness, promoting the idea that working would help them pass the time.
29. Money or A Life
This WWI poster plays on emotions again – a common occurrence in war propaganda. The intention is clear: that a failure to donate funds would likely result indirectly in the death of an American soldier.
30. Lick Them Over There!
Canada officially entered the Second World War on 10 September, 1939. This poster, designed to encourage Canadian men to join the fight in Europe, used the imagery of the soldier with one foot in Canada and one in Europe to symbolize the pressing threat on national security.
31. Grow a Garden
This poster was created for the United States Food Administration in 1918 by William McKee. It encourages American families to grow their own gardens (dubbed Victory Gardens) during WWII to help conserve food.
32. Gaza One Year On
Another modern poster, which is titled ‘Gaza One Year On, Still In Ruins’. It shows how destructed and devastated the city still is after all of the bombings it endured from Israel.
This propaganda poster promotes harmony between the Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu peoples. Their flags are in the background, and the caption reads ‘with the cooperation of Japan, China, and Manchukuo the world can be in peace.’ The people look happy and peaceful, and are linking arms in camaraderie.
34. Is This Tomorrow?
This is the cover of a propaganda comic book. It shows what tomorrow ‘could’ look like for Americans if the United States became a Communist country. It shows the flag in flames, and innocent citizens being abused by Communists.
35. Join The Communist Party
This poster was commissioned by the Communist Party of New Zealand in the 1940s. The slogan, “This Way To Progress”, and the designers choice of having every element in the poster directed to the right hand side of the page, combines to represent the notion that communism is the answer to take the world forward.
36. A Woman’s Right To Vote
The plight for women to claim their right to vote came to a head in the United States in 1920, when the right was officially granted. This was a women’s suffrage flyer circulated that year, spreading the message that the right had been claimed, and should be exercised.
37. Wake Up America
This poster shows a personification of America sleeping, urging the country to wake up and do its part in the war efforts of WWI.
38. There’s Still A Place For You
This poster was commissioned by the London Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. It depicted a line of battle-ready soldiers, with a space “reserved for a fit man”. The imagery and language used in the poster compelled men of action to join their comrades in the fight.
This iconic image represents Obama’s presidential campaign. It shows him as a symbol of hope, and is very reminiscent of the Che Guevara poster – which is a reflection of the revolution of the young generations who supported Obama’s campaign.
40. Buy War Bonds
Another poster that scares families into buying war bonds, this one takes a different approach and shows the enemy as monsters. Their long, pointed fingers are stretched out to an iconic looking American woman and her innocent baby. If you don’t buy war bonds, those hands could reach them, and end their lives.
41. Death and Fascism
This poster reads ‘The world now knows that the Fascists have nothing to offer the youth but death.’ It shows a skeleton removing a mask, which is the face of Hitler, and alludes to the fall of the Nazi regime.
42. Starship Troopers
This poster was made for the military science fiction book Starship Troopers. It says ‘the only good bug is a dead bug,’ and shows military men ready for a fight. It promotes action and encourages people to enlist.
43. Together We Can Do It
This poster shows two men rolling up their sleeves and coming together to get down to work. It encourages camaraderie between the staff and management at GM. You can see the distinction not only by the labels, but by the ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ shirts.
44. Is he your child?
This poster, commissioned by one of the Allied countries in 1943, played on the emotions of its target audience: parents. The innocent-looking child, with the war scenes in the background, is struggling under the weight and size of the Nazi cap and the skull badge pinned over his heart acted to reinforce the sense of fear.
45. Silence Means Security
Another propaganda poster used by the Allied Forces in World War II to spread the message of silence amongst civilians, particularly female civilians. This one used the imagery of a woman dressed in a military outfit to appeal directly to its target audience.
46. I Want You for the Navy
Taking a leaf out of Uncle Sam’s ‘I Want You’ poster, instead of portraying Uncle Sam, they portray an attractive woman. She is saying ‘She Wants You for the Navy’, and again plays on men’s desires for women to get them to enlist.
47. Nixon’s the One
Richard Nixon ran a campaign that asked voters who they would want to lead the country, which resulted in the slogan ‘Nixon is the One’. A political strategist and prankster, Dick Tuck, hired groups of pregnant women to go to Nixon rallies wearing buttons sporting the slogan, which indicated he was ‘the one’ for a number of other areas as well.
48. I Want You F.D.R
The idea of ‘I Want You’ was used in many propaganda posters, this one included. It was used to F.D.R’s advantage, and helped him secure his fourth term as President. It shows Uncle Sam pointing to F.D.R and telling him he wants him to finish the job, that America needs him to finish the job.
49. V for Victory
This illustrated poster shows employees and management coming together, and in doing so ‘cracking’ Hitler and Hirohito. It encourages camaraderie at work, and promotes the idea that working together can end the war.
50. The Working Man’s President
This campaign poster aimed to get the labor vote. It shows Grant and Wilson (potential President and Vice President) as hard working men, and represents the idea that they will both work hard for America.
There you have it: 50 examples of visual propaganda and the stories they tell. While most uncover dark and regretful features of our past, it’s heartening to know that through history propaganda tactics have been harnessed to bring about positive change. Which one did you find most compelling?