The First World War initially began in Sarajevo during June of 1914, when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The nationalist resented the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their domination of the Balkan states, retaliating by murdering a major political power from their empire and thus, causing a conflict that quickly broadened across the globe. The conflict between Serbians and Austrians pitted the Serbian Allies against the powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey. In April of 1917, the United States entered the war, joining forces with the Allies.
The First World War created an urgent demand for wartime propaganda, recruiting men to join the war, nationalists to support the war, and financial backers to fund the war. This propaganda was found through graphic design in lithographic posters. In the United States, more posters had been produced than any other nation, relying on conservative illustration to convey their objectives. The most effective of them all, and possibly the most well-known poster of all time was James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want YOU for U.S. Army, a color lithograph produced in 1917.
Flagg originally created the poster for an American magazine, where it appeared on the cover in 1917. The design features Uncle Sam, a personification for the United States, pointing at the viewer, accompanied by the text “I Want YOU For U.S. Army.” Like many American artists during the early twentieth century, Flagg gained inspiration for his poster from British graphic design. Although the “pointing poster” was prominent in many nations during the First World War, the style was developed by British designer Alfred Leete in 1914.
Over the years, Uncle Sam had been portrayed in many different ways. Flagg’s version uniquely bases the patriot’s physical attributes on a combination of tradition and the designer’s own features. Sam has a head of white hair with a matching gotee, a thin elderly face, and is dressed in a blue suit, red bow tie, and star-spangled top hat. The text accompanying Uncle Sam is a bold condensed sans serif, blue with a red outline. The word “YOU” stands out from the others, printed in red with a navy outline. Beneath this statement reads “Nearest Recruiting Station” in a navy bold sans serif.
I Want YOU for U.S. Army was printed over four million times in the duration of the First World War, and was resurrected to be reproduced during the Second World War. James Montgomery Flagg’s legacy lies within this color lithograph, successfully creating an advertisement that directly incorporates the viewer and encompasses American patriotism. The designer is remembered today as the man who designed the most famous American poster ever made.