How Propaganda Posters Sent the Modern World to War
He’s not exactly everyone’s favorite uncle, but you probably see him more than you do most of your extended family: Uncle Sam points to every American from recruiting posters, movie screens, T-shirts, billboards and pop art. How did this bearded old Yankee get so embedded in our national consciousness?
In 1916, American artist James Montgomery Flagg first made this American caricature famous as a call to war with his “I want YOU for U.S. Army” poster. The U.S. government printed over 4 million copies of the glaring, tough old Yankee between 1917 and 1918, as America charged into the First World War. Flagg’s Uncle Sam was so popular that he saw action in wars to come, representing the whole of American military might and right.
Source: Library of Congress
Propaganda images have existed for centuries, from mass-produced images of Roman emperors to Napoleon’s clever eye for portraits. But something happened at the turn of the 20th century that made the art of visual persuasion a whole new game.
For one thing, political parties started using posters en masse in late 19th- and early 20th-century campaigns. However, as historian James Thompson has discovered, they soon clocked on that the winner wasn’t always the one who could print the most posters. Instead, it was often the simplest, brightest and boldest poster and that drew the 20th-century eye.
Flagg’s Uncle Sam is representative of a propaganda strategy that took the world by storm after World War I. Focusing on the individual — in art but also in politics — was all the rage, and got people’s attention in an increasingly busy world.