A portion of the illustration on a 1917 First Liberty Loan poster depicts a monumental Uncle Sam seated in the center. On the left, citizens offer the old man money. Meanwhile, military personnel stand on the right. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-8040.
World War I produced the United States’ most iconic military propaganda poster of all time. You know the one: A stern Uncle Sam, patriotically attired in a star-spangled top hat, aims a bony finger at passersby, imploring them to stop whatever they’re doing and head to their local recruiting station. “I Want YOU for US Army,” reads the caption — and you can tell by his death stare that he’s not likely to take “no” for an answer.
While the image of Uncle Sam became famous for its role in military recruitment efforts during World War I, it actually predates America’s entry into the conflict. In fact, it first appeared in print nearly a year before the first wave of US troops arrived in Europe. Prolific illustrator James Montgomery Flagg had sketched the steely eyed Uncle Sam for the cover of the July 6, 1916, issue of the popular literary and news magazine Leslie’s Weekly. This version was captioned: “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”
Nine months later, after the United States declared war on Germany, the Army adapted Flagg’s image for a recruitment poster and updated it with the “I Want You for U.S. Army” caption. Below that, the words “Nearest Recruiting Station” were centered above a blank space meant to be filled in with the address of the nearest Army recruiting station.
Flagg’s “I Want You” poster quickly became ubiquitous in towns and cities across the country. Over the course of the war, more than 4 million copies of the poster were printed. But Uncle Sam doesn’t deserve all the credit for motivating fresh-faced young Americans to take up arms amid one of the most brutal conflicts in human history. There were other recruitment posters, too, and some of them were also pretty great. Including Flagg’s, here are our top five.
“I Want You for U.S. Army” by James Montgomery Flagg, ca. 1917. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03521.
In 1914, Englishman Alfred Leete illustrated British war secretary Lord Kitchener pointing at young Britons and urging them to “Join [Their] Country’s Army!” Two years later, Flagg copied Leete’s design and Americanized the advertisement in his famous “I Want You” poster. The result was a star-spangled Uncle Sam modeled after none other than Flagg himself. Due to its long-lasting celebrity, Flagg’s iconic poster was later recycled and used for recruiting purposes during World War II.
“Teufel Hunden” by Charles Buckles Falls, ca. 1918. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-10224.
As the story goes, during the First World War, German soldiers so feared American Marines that they started calling them “teufelshunde,” or “devil dogs.” Whether that story is true remains up for debate, but at some point during the Great War, someone referred to Marines as “devil dogs,” and the nickname stuck. With his World War I Marine recruitment poster, titled “Teufel Hunden” (a misspelling of the German term), American artist Charles Buckles Falls not only helped cement the moniker, but also poked fun at the Germans by depicting them as wiener dogs.
“Join the Navy, the Service for Fighting Men” by Russell F. Babcock, ca. 1917. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-9658.
Join the Navy, ride a torpedo. Now that’s effective recruiting.
“Columbia Calls” designed by Frances Adams Halsted, painted by Vincent Aderente, ca. 1916. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-50012.
Columbia had long been the poetic, female personification of the United States of America. However, her popularity diminished in the 1920s, perhaps due to the public’s budding affection for Lady Liberty. In this famous World War I poster, designed by New England artist Frances Adams Halsted just before Columbia fell into disrepute, the sword-wielding female icon calls upon the American people to enlist in the US Army.
Interestingly, if you look closely, there is a small swastika on the right side of Halsted’s design, just above the accompanying poem (which Halsted authored). Why? Well, prior to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, the swastika, which derives its name from the Sanskrit for “conducive to well-being,” widely signified good fortune.
“Treat ’Em Rough!” by August William Hutaf, ca. 1918. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ds-07446.
Tanks made their battlefield debut during the Great War, and the US Tank Corps was established soon thereafter. Illustrator and commercial artist August William Hutaf helped bring fame and publicity to the nascent corps with this colorful poster featuring a rendition of its mascot, a fearsome black cat.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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