No matter how much the Texas State Board of Education wishes to run away from America’s heritage, we can’t.
Nor should we want to.
Propaganda is not a bad word. There is bad propaganda, stuff that doesn’t work. There is propaganda for bad purposes, stuff that promotes bad policies, or evil. But good propaganda is stronger, long-lasting, often full of great artistic merit, and instructive.
Images of Uncle Sam provide clear pictures of what Americans were thinking, from the oldest versions to today.
This poster above is a World War I poster designed to convince Americans to get involved in the war effort. J. C. Leyendecker, a noted illustrator, casts Uncle Sam as a baseball player up to bat. The poster says simply, “Get in the game with Uncle Sam.” Perhaps uniquely, this poster showed Sam in yellow-striped pants, instead of the more traditional red-striped. Could an artist take such liberty today?
Nicolas Ricketts at the Strong Museum of National Play offered a good, concise description of the politics and history of the poster at the blog for the Museum:
Meanwhile, then-president Woodrow Wilson, who had won reelection in 1916 on an anti-war platform, faced the need for American participation in the terrible “Great War” raging in Europe. He and his cabinet knew that American involvement loomed. But how could the government convince the American public that this was necessary? One idea was to create a poster that urged Americans to metaphorically “Get in the Game,” along with their patriotic national symbol, Uncle Sam.
Artist J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) designed the poster, commissioned by the Publicity Committee of the Citizens Preparedness Association, a pro-war organization with federal support which also sponsored “preparedness parades” and other nationalistic activities. Leyendecker himself emigrated from Germany at age eight and was approaching the pinnacle of his career in 1917 when he created this work.
The poster just preceded James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “I Want You” image of Uncle Sam, which later became the best-known likeness of the country’s unofficial symbol. Leyendecker’s version, in spite of his baseball bat, is possibly less affable to contemporary eyes than Flagg’s friendlier Sam. But the bat he holds connected him to many Americans, who perhaps then decided that America should “get in the game.”
Some of this older propaganda had a humorous twist I think is too often missing from modern posters. It was more effective for that, I think.
The image of Sam at bat shows up in many places in the internet world, but most often stripped of its identifying links to Leyendecker. That does disservice to the art, to history, and to Leyendecker, who was one of our nation’s better illustrators for a very long time.
Visit the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.