Published: February 27, 2001
Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty:
STONY BROOK, N.Y. – The evolution of two central symbols in the American identity is the focus of “Uncle Sam & Lady Liberty: ” at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages.
Featuring color lithographs, posters, political cartoons, drawings, and advertising ephemera, the exhibition explores the historical depictions of the nation’s best-known personifications: Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. Organized by the New-York Historical Society and drawn from its collection, the exhibition continues through May 13.
An “Indian Princess” was the first symbol of the New World and thus a distant ancestor of Lady Liberty. In the Sixteenth Century, European cartographers began to use female allegorical figures to represent each of the four known continents – Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. Named for the continent she represented, “L’Amerique” was a noble savage in imaginative surroundings, lush with fabulous beasts and exotic flora, who provided pictures for European fantasies about the New World. Over time, the “Indian Princess” became more and more Europeanized in garb and features.
In the late Eighteenth Century, “L’Amerique” took on a new identity, representing not merely geography but also national values and interests. Satires of the 1770s depict her as the rebellious and untamed young daughter of Britannia, Great Britain’s allegorical figure. After the American Revolution “L’Amerique” was replaced by the classical figure of Columbia, garbed in patriotic dress and a star-studded crown. She was seen as a mature daughter of mother Britannia, whom she closely resembled.
In the same period, Liberty also came into view, identified by a red cap that was either worn or carried on a pole. The Phrygian cap was first worn by emancipated Roman slaves to cover their shorn heads as a sign of their new freedom. During the French Revolution, the Phrygian cap was again adopted as a definitive symbol of liberty.
In the Nineteenth Century, Liberty and Columbia were depicted interchangeably as symbols of America. At times even their distinctive headgear was shared. “L’Amerique” gradually dropped from sight although she was transformed during the 1830s, a period of intense nativist sentiment, into the legendary figure of Pocahontas. When Bartholdi’s colossal “Statue of Liberty” was erected in New York harbor in 1886, Columbia was gradually eclipsed and Lady Liberty became the leading female icon of the United States.
There have been many statues of Liberty in the history of America. Two of the most famous are “The Republic,” sculpted by Daniel Chester French for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and the “Statue of Freedom,” by Thomas Crawford, on the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Crawford’s statue is often mistaken for Pocahontas since she sports a cascade of feathers behind her head. These plumes were not part of Crawford’s original plan: he had proposed a statue of Liberty wearing her traditional Phrygian cap. However, one member of the committee in charge of decoration of the Capitol, Jefferson Davis (later to become president of the Confederate States of America), objected on the basis of the cap’s association with emancipation from slavery. He demanded that Crawford revise his plan.
Crawford thus substituted a helmet with stars (for Columbia) and feathers (for the “Indian Princess”). This final version was unanimously accepted and has topped the dome of the Capitol since December 1863, with Abraham Lincoln overseeing its placement. Ironically, this “Statue of Freedom” was cast under the direction of a slave named Philip Reed in Chester Mills’ foundry in Maryland.
Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s monumental statue “Liberty Enlightening the World” was created in France and shipped in sections to the United States in commemoration of the French-American alliance during the War of Independence. The statue arrived too late for the centennial celebration in 1876, and without preparations for a base to stand on. A Pedestal Fund campaign was mounted, Richard Morris Hunt was hired as architect, and the foundation was completed in time for the statue’s inauguration on October 28, 1886.
Much hoopla accompanied these preparations, and even before installation on Bedloes Island (on the site of the former Fort Wood), the statue had gained considerable public attention. It was depicted in many caricatures, prints, advertisements, and sheet music and became a favorite theme of parlor games such as “Living Statues,” much in vogue at the time. Bartholdi’s statue of Liberty was on its way to becoming the official emblem of the United States.
Uncle Sam first appeared in print on September 7, 1813, when The Troy Post reported that it was “a cant name for our government – almost as current as ‘John Bull.’ The letters US On the government waggons, etc. are supposed to have given rise to it.” The legendary origin of this vernacular term was later related by Representative Theororus Bailey in The New-York Gazette and General Advertiser on May 12,1830.
By this account, Samuel Wilson (1766-1854) operated a meatpacking plant in Troy, N.Y. Locally known as “Uncle Sam,” Wilson was hired by a government contractor named Elbert Anderson to supply meat to soldiers in the War of 1812. Provisions were packed in casks marked on behalf of the government by the contractor’s initials: “E.A. – US.” A local packer quipped that the still-new abbreviation for “United States” stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson. The joke circulated quickly among the troops.
Bailey noted “how odd it would be should this silly joke, originating in the midst of beef, pork, pickle, mud, salt and hoop-poles, eventually become a national cognomen” – which is exactly what happened. Over time, this legend was recounted as fact in historic accounts and children’s books.
In 1959, Troy, N.Y., sought to make official its claim to the original “Uncle Sam” by having the city legally designated as the birthplace of the national symbol. The State legislature obliged by resolving that Samuel Wilson was the inspiration for the star-spangled icon.
A similar measure was sent to the United States Congress, where it met with dissent from Congressmen offering other candidates for the honor from their home states. Senators Kenneth B. Keating and Jacob Javits of New York secured passage of the resolution on September 15, 1961, by pointing out that Troy was planning to celebrate its distinction at a ceremony “within 48 hours,” so that delaying a decision “would not be the courteous thing to do.” Since that time, Troy has been the official home of Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam was not the country’s first national symbol nor was he the first male. He was preceded by another populist figure, Brother Jonathan, who first appeared in 1787 as a character in Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast. The first images of Brother Jonathan appeared by 1813, long after Lady Liberty had made her debut. He represented our fledgling country in much the same way as “L’Amerique,” the Indian Princess, represented the Colonies.
The earliest images of Uncle Sam date to the mid-1830s, in political cartoons responding to a monetary crisis during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. For decades, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam continued to coexist as complementary national symbols. In his knickers and raffish hat, Brother Jonathan was a Yankee hayseed who came to represent the common man, while Uncle Sam, in his star-studded robe and striped pants, personified the federal government.
The prints on exhibit, organized chronologically, document the gradual synthesis of these two figures. In the years after the Civil War, Uncle Sam gradually displaced Brother Jonathan as a national symbol. However, traces of Brother Jonathan remain in both Uncle Sam’s down-home character as well as in details of his wardrobe, such as his “high-water” trousers held in place by stirrups.
In the World War I era, posters were the most effective means of mass communication and persuasion. Even before America entered the war, the government undertook a campaign to counter isolationist sentiment. Once the nation officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, the campaign expanded to enlist soldiers and to rally citizens on the home front.
To mobilize for the war effort, Charles Dana Gibson (of “Gibson Girl” fame) established the Department of Pictorial Publicity and induced fellow artists – including James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Christian Leyendecker, and Joseph Pennell – to donate their services. Recruitment was the most pressing issue; a million men were needed for the nation’s armed forces. Flagg’s stern-faced Uncle Sam (presumably a self-portrait), exhorting “I Want YOU for US Army,” became the most famous poster in American history.
Uncle Sam’s female counterpart was Liberty, whose visage appeared in over 90 percent of the posters featuring women. Both Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam shared the job of recruitment, fundraising, and home-front efforts. Liberty took the lead when it came to compassion and aid to foreign countries. The Statue of Liberty was the official logo of the Liberty Loan campaign, which raised over $22 billion in less than two years, and is regarded as one of the most successful ever mounted.
Between the wars, mass communication changed dramatically with the advent of radio, movies, and popular magazines. Still, posters remained useful in enlisting support for the United States entry into World War II. The poster campaign reprised themes of recruitment, sacrifice, and productivity from the previous war, but this time it was not artists who organized the campaign.
In January 1942, Madison Avenue advertising agencies volunteered their services to the Office of War Information. Led by Young and Rubicam, the agencies relied on such professional techniques as motivational research studies and Gallup polls to evaluate the market appeal of their designs. Compared with the posters produced during World War I, these advertisements varied little from illustrator to illustrator.
World War II posters used the Statue of Liberty to symbolize America; the figure of Liberty with her red Phrygian cap is no longer to be seen. She appears only in disguised form, as in Norman Rockwell’s “HOME FRONT” picture of a female mechanic in the wartime labor force and his “Rosie the Riveter” magazine cover.
During both world wars, patriotic songs sparked national solidarity. They were commissioned to garner support for American intervention in World War I. After the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats in 1915, the song “Wake Up America!” and accompanying posters roused an isolationist public. Selections from World War I feature both Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. Selections from World War II star Uncle Sam.
Beginning in the mid-Nineteenth Century, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam adorned a wide array of consumer products, from sewing machines to Ex-Lax. Their endorsement implied that the products were pure, solidly manufactured, and all-American. As symbols of our country, their images also linked consumerism with patriotism. As President Calvin Coolidge put it in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Columbia also appeared in many ads and was often indistinguishable from Lady Liberty. She was shown on posters using the Four Continents theme, suggesting that the products or services had worldwide appeal. Occasionally “L’Amerique” was depicted, but more often a Native American woman was chosen to suggest that the product advertised was produced from honest American soil.
Some of these advertisements include offensive stereotypes. Originally intended to be humorous, these ads are a window into the attitude of their time. All rdf_Descriptions are from the Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera at The New-York Historical Society.
Trade cards were the most prolific form of advertising in the late Nineteenth Century. Originally engraved in black and white in the late Eighteenth Century, the advent of chromolithography led to the use of color in the 1860s and 1870s. Patriotism, racism, and jingoism merge in this selection of tradecards, in which businesses used Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty to promote a wide range of services and products.
As ready-made symbols of the nation’s ideals, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam were widely used by cartoonists of every political persuasion to cover topics as varied as imperialism, women’s rights, public health, monopolies, and prohibition. While Uncle Sam was caricatured as the personification of the federal government, Lady Liberty tended to represent such enduring American values as open immigration, democracy, and human rights. Thus, while Uncle Sam’s stature diminished during the Vietnam War era, the Statue of Liberty remained untarnished as a symbol of idealism.
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