James Montgomery Flagg and His Iconic Uncle Sam Poster

American Illustrator Started at Age 12

Original Uncle Sam I Want You Poster
Original Uncle Sam "I Want You" Poster from World War I. - Photo courtesy of Guernsey’s

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) is one of those artists whose work you know of, even if you don’t know his name. He created the truly iconic Uncle Sam imagery used on pro-American “I Want You” posters first produced during World War I. Even Flagg acknowledged his work as “the most famous poster in the world,” according to the Library of Congress. And with four million copies printed between 1917 and 1918, you might think they’re pretty common.

The truth is, however, that few of these original posters remain for collectors to cherish today, and they can be worth quite a good sum if you’re lucky enough to find one. Four of these very familiar, and often reproduced, original posters with artwork by Flagg were offered for sale in 2015 by Guernsey’s auction house in New York, New York. They were a small part of an extensive collection assembled by Colonel Edward H. McCrahon.

McCrahon, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, first became interested in poster art while serving in the French military early on during World War I before America entered the war. He eventually returned home to join the U.S. Army. The 2,000 posters he assembled in the years during and immediately following the Great War are split pretty evenly between those from the United States and those representing other countries such as Great Britain and France.

When they were sold, some of the more than 700 auction lots available through live bidding on the floor and via the Internet included more than one poster.

The “I Want You” posters were sold individually, however, giving admirers of Flagg’s artistry several opportunities to bid. The star of the show was the cream of the crop poster, which broke an auction world record by selling for $20,000 (not including buyer's premium). The other three posters in lesser condition sold from $1,875 to $2,000.

Another thing many people don’t realize about the “I Want You” imagery is that it originally appeared on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July, 1916 with a different title: “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” The image was used again in World War II, and Flagg even presented president Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an updated version in the 1940s.

Flagg’s Other Work

While good ‘ole Uncle Sam might be Flagg’s most famous illustration, his other credits are numerous. In fact, he actually did 46 illustrations to support World War I, as also reported by the Library of Congress. He served on the Civilian Preparedness Committee and as a member of Charles Dana Gibson’s Committee of Pictorial Publicity during that period as well.

But long before that, he saw his first published work appear in St. Nicholas Magazine at the age of 12. Those first works were rough, and showed more “promise than fulfillment,” according to his editor. He continued to practice his craft though with the encouragement of his parents and others who saw his potential. By the time he was 15, he was on staff penning cartoons for both Life and Judge, popular humor magazines in the early 1900s, according to JVJ Publishing.

He illustrated many, many books and magazine articles, and had a number of magazine covers to his credit.

Flagg’s illustrations of beautiful women were on par with other famed illustrators such as F. Earl Christy and Harrison Fisher. But, being a well-known playboy, it’s not surprising that he also drew some scantily clad ladies and nudes during the 1930s. He also developed poster illustrations for movies in the ‘30s, and even wrote and acted in a few films as well.

A McCall’s ad illustrated by Flagg from 1942 featured President Roosevelt urging women to “enlist” to protect the home front with patriotic flair by joining “the ranks of the home defenders.” By the late 1940s he was known for colorful illustrations in Cooking Around America depicting women preparing, displaying, or serving food.

So, clearly, while the talented kid known as Jimmy Flagg grew up to draw one of the most famous depictions of Uncle Sam Americans will ever know, that was just one example of his talent shared with his fans during a long and fruitful career.